Chinese Capital Losing Battle Against Gridlock

December 14, 2010 - 6:13 AM

Beijing (AP) - China's capital is losing the battle against traffic gridlock as more families can afford to buy cars -- even though the clogged streets means they frequently grind along at little more than a crawl.

Now, the Beijing city government has issued a set of proposals to clear the congestion and is seeking public opinion on the plan that involves increasing capacity of public buses and subways, building roadways and stepping up parking fees.

"Traffic congestion is a reflection of economic development and the improvement of living standards," the city's transportation commission said in the proposal posted on its website and published in state media Tuesday. The document ticked off causes of the gridlock including high population density, rapid increase in the number of private vehicles, overloaded public transportation and poor traffic management.

The number of cars in Beijing is now 4.7 million, nearly double the 2.6 million counted in 2005. An average of nearly 2,000 new cars hit the road each day.

But the high volume doesn't tell the whole story. The problem is exacerbated by the jostle for space with buses, bicycles and even the occasional horse-drawn cart. Aggressive driving is the norm, as is a casual disregard for traffic rules.

The transportation commission did not respond to a faxed request for comment asking how many opinions they have received and what residents were suggesting. Authorities did not say when they would announce the new anti-gridlock measures.

The plan's release did have one unintended side effect -- many car sales lots in Beijing were sitting empty as crowds snapped up vehicles amid rumors the government might try to restrict new sales.

"Sales are much better than we expected," said Zhang Bo, sales manager at a Toyota dealership where customers have to wait two months for a Camry sedan or Highlander SUV. At a Volkswagen dealership, the wait time for the popular Golf family car was six months.

"The manufacturer is trying to increase their capacity, but the earliest they can get more cars out is January," said a marketing executive at the dealership who gave only his surname Shen.

For now, the city isn't proposing any sales restrictions, though it said it may ban cars on alternate days "when necessary," based an odd-even system using the last number of the license plate. Currently, the city bans private cars from the roads one day a week, based on the last number of the license plate.

Odd-even car bans were imposed during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and reduced congestion considerably, though the rule also prompted well-to-do Beijingers to simply go out and buy another car.

Zhang Yu, a senior engineer with the Urban Transport Center under the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, said studies show that 60 percent of the time, people's destinations are less than 3 miles (5 kilometers) from their homes.

"Residents should consider going by bike or on foot or taking public transportation," she said. But bus lanes are crowded and so many people find it's faster to drive.

Zhang suggested different classes of tickets on public transportation to attract better-off customers, better bus and bike lanes, and more space for pedestrians. Building more roads was not the answer, she said.

"Before 1990 the government was building more and more roads but that was fine because there was a need for those roadways," she said. "But after that, the more roads they built, the more serious the traffic jams became. So building new roads does not solve traffic jams."

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Associated Press researchers Zhao Liang and Yu Bing contributed to this report.