Rail & Infrastructure

Going round in circles

As Beijing completes its Seventh Ring Road, a short history of the other six


If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.” So sang Beyonce in her iconic 2008 hit Single Ladies. China’s traffic planners, it seems, need little persuading.

This month Beijing will open its seventh orbital highway, giving the capital the world’s largest number of ring roads.

The new road is 1,000 kilometres in circumference – equivalent to the distance between Paris and Barcelona. In fact, it is so long that 90% of it actually runs through the surrounding province of Hebei.

“The project is expected to improve air quality and boost economic growth in the capital as well as the wider Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region,” the China Daily boasts.

Work began on the road in 2005 with an expressway between Zhuozhou and Langfang in the south of Beijing. The final section, just completed, is the link between Tongzhou and Beijing New Daxing.

Unlike Beijing’s other ring roads, the aim is not to service the capital but to connect surrounding cities which form part of the larger Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei economic zone.

A three-year transport development plan released this month aims to reduce travel time between Beijing’s satellite cities and their satellite towns to under an hour. The other hope is that the new ring road – which cost more than Rmb12 billion ($1.81 billion) – will keep polluting vehicles away from Beijing.

“Three out of 10 trucks using Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road are not headed for the city but are still contributing to its carbon emissions and traffic congestion,” the China Daily noted.

In some ways China’s penchant for ring roads can be traced back to the city’s construction in the 1400s – with the emperor’s Forbidden City, encircled again, by a city wall.

The city’s ‘first ring road’ was actually a 17km tram line completed in 1924. The track was removed in the 1950s, but the name stuck – so confusingly there is no physical highway that acts as the first ring road.

The construction of what Beijingers now call the Third Ring Road began in 1958 with help from the Soviet Union. But most people still rode bicycles back then and it was too far from the city centre to be of much use.

Later when the capital embarked on building its first underground railway lines in the 1960s it demolished much of the city wall. And when the train lines were complete, it laid what is now the Second Ring Road on top of them.

Work on the Fourth Ring Road began in 1990 and was completed in 2001. The Fifth Ring Road was completed in 2003 and the Sixth was finished in 2009.

Yet until it got its seventh orbital, Beijing was not the out-and-out titleholder of city-

with-the-most-ring roads. The southwestern city of Chengdu also has six.

By comparison Moscow and Delhi have two and London only has one circular motorway – the infamous M25 (sometimes dubbed ‘Europe’s largest car park’ thanks to its rush hour congestion).

Yet there is now citizen pushback against the Chinese government’s love of utilitarian urban planning.

In an article titled “Why America has no ring roads” published last October Sohu News told the story of Jane Jacobs, the journalist and activist who fought to preserve New York neighbourhoods such as SoHo and Greenwich in the 1960s.

Her nemesis was Robert Moses, a public official and the so-called “master builder” of the city (there is a biography of him by Robert Caro, the historian more famous for his multi-volume series on Lyndon B Johnson).

“At the core of Jacobs’s concept is people. The most important component of a city is not buildings, roads or cars, but pedestrians and citizens,” the Sohu article said.“China’s cities follow Moses’ philosophy. In essence, they ignore and exclude people. You will be neglected and despised,” it concluded.

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