Blame trucks, not cars…
According to the Beijing Youth Daily, the main culprit is a steep increase in coal trucks. More than 8,000 of them are passing traffic hotspots in outer Beijing on a daily basis, the Economic Information Daily confirmed. That is well beyond capacity and is creating “funnel type” conditions on the outskirts of the capital.
The problem is coal, the Financial Times agreed. Much of it has to be transported from inland provinces to seaports on China’s east coast, to be shipped to cities in the south. Mongolian coal production was up well over a third to 637 million tonnes last year alone, with another 15% increase expected this year. It creates “pig-in-python” traffic conditions, said the New York Times, with long sections of the road network brought to a standstill.
There were reports of improved traffic flow at the end of last week. But snarl-ups are common, with blockages almost always occurring in a west-to-east direction. While coal continues to cost at least twice as much to transport by rail than by road, expect the queues to continue.
And the jams were back yesterday, CCTV reported. This time the traffic is backed up for 75 miles. The state broadcaster said the highway had been transformed into a parking-lot by traffic control measures designed to reduce congestion closer to Beijing. But the outcome was to shift the gridlock further up the highway, towards Inner Mongolia.
It was a “perfect storm” of conditions, Tom Vanderbilt, a traffic expert, told the Wall Street Journal: a general uplift in freight, a seasonal surge in other traffic and heavy road works. It reminded him of worst-case scenarios in other countries, like the last weekend in August in France when everyone is returning from holiday.
Expect gridlock for a while longer, said the New York Times. Two new rail lines are being built along the trucks’ route, one for freight and one for coal. But they won’t open until 2012.
Vanderbilt agreed that congestion wasn’t going to clear any time soon. The FT reports the Chinese bought 1.2 million new cars in August.
Infrastructure spend has been too heavily weighted towards roads, the Shanghai Morning Post noted. But the long-term solution is to invest more in rail links between a smaller number of mega cities, and encourage greater population density around these transport hubs.
We also need to look at driver incentives, said the Economic Information Daily. Increases in tolls have meant that drivers from inland provinces have to overload to make a profit, so their trucks are more likely to break down. Nor will they consider detours if it means paying more tolls. They prefer to sit out the jams, instead.
The great China traffic jam offers a metaphor for those who see the country’s economic growth leading us all to environmental disaster, writes Andrew Leonard in Salon.com. Alternatively, look at it as a speed bump. Remember that 15 years ago, Shanghai didn’t have a single mile of subway. Now it has more track than any other city in the world.
Beijing’s drivers might opt more for the train too, if a recent survey is to be believed. The capital ranked as the worst place to drive in IBM’s Commuter Pain Index, which considers issues like total commuting time, time stuck in traffic, and driving causing anger and stress. Only Mexico City and Johannesburg come close.
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