Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Traffic Troubles

Sometimes the Chinese government seems thoughtful, far-sighted, and prudent. China's foreign reserves, now over one and a half trillion dollars, and beginning to be made into the world's largest investment fund, is an example of this. So is China's foreign policy, where it makes just enough of a stink to make other nations reluctant to bother them, but quietely makes friends with resource rich countries around the globe, particularly nasty dictatorships that the west, and America in particular, dislike (ethically debatable yes, but also smart).

At times, I think this leads people to ascribe wisdom and foresight to the government to a much greater degree than is warranted. Remember, this is a government that is controlled by a byzantine system of authority, and Chinese leaders in the past have made titanic blunders; one thinks of the great leap forward, of mobilizing the masses to kill all the sparrows (which resulted in plauges of insects), or China's last tussle with Vietnam in which they were not defeated, but sorely dissapointed.

One of the biggest blunders I see today is the lack of attention that has been given to developing a sustainable, equitable, and efficient transportation system, and the decision to make the car the basis of intra-city transport in China.

While I am currently blogging from Shanghai, the streets of which bear much greater resemblance to a western city than Beijing, and also seems to have less traffic, I have spent most of my time in the captial, which is an unallayed traffic catastrophe.

In the first place there are those blasted ring roads. The second ring road seems to function all right, but the further out they get, the less sense they make; why go around in a circle when you could build a road that goes straight? The biggest problem with them is of course that they are not connected, except by tediously slow streets with traffic lights. There are no highways going into the center of Beijing (within the third ring).

As a result, the ring roads are the only option for most travel around the center. The second ring is almost constantly busy, and the third has traffic jams for several hours a day. Sure, Los Angeles, DC, and other cities in the US also have this problem, but they do not have car ownership growing at 10-15% per year, which doubles the number of cars on the road every 5-7 years. Yes, my friends, it will get worse.

Beijing currently has only 4 subway lines (one of which is an extension). Although there are five more in the works, this is probably still inadequate for a city this large. Chicago has 8 lines, plus a network of commuter trains to the suburbs, all to serve one fourth the population of Beijing.

Density, or lack of it, is also a problem. Beijing and Shanghai are two of the largest cities on earth, and yet their average population density is less than almost any major city in Europe. Certain districts are crowded, to be sure, but they are filled with miles and miles of low-rise housing. Less density means greater distances, which means greater transportation needs that are going unmet.

Parking is a huge issue as well. While many apartment complexes have underground parking, the lack of parking towers in Beijing is conspicuous. As a result, most parking seems to be done on the street, and on sidewalks, inconveniencing those not using fuel-based transport, and taking up tons of space. Real efficient.

What pisses me off the most, though, is the total lack of respect for the bicycle, which is especially infuriating given it's importance to China in the last 100 years. Bike lanes serve as pedestrian walks, parking lanes, and driving lanes as well for cars, the drivers of which generally have no patience for cyclists (a class thing, in my view). Biking is actually faster than driving if there's any traffic in Beijing. And if they would just construct ACTUAL bike only lanes, or even better, an elevated bike-highway across town, biking could become significantly faster.

The density of people per square foot of road is much higher with bikes (even scooters and motorcycles) than cars. They don't make smog, don't make CO2, and are actually good for you (bonus for China: long hours in the bike saddle can lead to infertility in men). Yet for some reason, a government that has no problem restricting the freedom to have children is unwilling to even encourage citizens to use their bikes. Now, every time I hear someone saying China has to be careful to preserve its own institutions and not adopt everything western I think "oh yeah? What about bikes?"

For those of you who are argumentative like me, yes, I realize that the bicycle is also a western invention. But is has been here a lot longer than the car, is intimately associated with China (the bicycle kingdom), and today the non-mountain, non-racing bike with a basket on the front is almost unkown in the west. So there.

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