Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two First Steps

I've been thinking a lot about traffic in Beijing lately, and why it doesn't work.

First, there's the streets: there are plenty of wide, four to six lane roads, and plenty of narrow, twisting hutongs, but little in between. In between the broad boulevards are enormous city blocks that could have twenty thousand people living in them, as well as numerous shopping and dining establishments. But to get to the buildings within the blocks, you need to navigate through the hutongs with two-way traffic, bikes, pedestrians, and usually cars parked on either side of the road. Near the school where I teach on Saturdays, I often see six or seven cars backed up in either direction and two drivers in the center honking at each other until one backs down and ever-so-slowly tries to back up and let the other pass. This usually takes an inordinately long time because all of the drivers behind him have to back up as well. There's plenty of honking, but people I've talked to about this don't seem to think there's any solution, or that it's an inescapable problem of greater car ownership.

I beg to differ. If the government were to ban parking on the side of the road except for a few designated areas, the problem would ease enormously. China puts up concrete shells in no time flat, but I can't recall seeing an above-ground parking complex in Beijing. Surely the government could easily construct enough of these to accommodate cars that park on the street now.

And it's not just hutongs that have parking problems. I see lines of cars parked on the ring roads all the time. Can you imagine cars parking along a freeway in America? The ring roads run at full capacity for much of the day in Beijing, and there's a large cost in terms of time and money when people wait in traffic. Drivers might not like having to go out of their way and pay money to park in a parking tower, but as it is now everyone is paying for it in lost time, and for me on my bicycle, increased risk of death as I move out into the road to avoid cars parked in the bike lane.

I also think that the narrowness of your average hutong necessitates ditching two-way traffic. There's just no way to have an efficient flow of traffic when a whole line of cars literally has to back up and pull to the side to let another line of cars through - not to mention the inconvenience it causes the pedestrians and cyclists.

Like many of the other campaigns the government has undertaken to change people's behavior, I'm sure this wouldn't be easy to implement. But we are, after all, talking about a country which has (at least somewhat successfully) managed to control how many children a person can have. Surely they can tell you where you can and can't park you car. And if this serves as a disincentive to buying a car? We can only hope. . .

Now if I can only think up a solution to Beijing's preternaturally even population distribution (lack of a dense city center). . .

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jmc said...

I think this would only work if you were to believe that traffic behaves like a fluid and that "unblocking" a grid will remove it, but it actually doesn't seem to behave that way. First of all, cars tend to speed up when they encounter a lower pressure, whereas molecules of a liquid will move slower under lower pressure but faster under higher pressure.

Secondly, the more a grid is built for cars the more people will choose to use cars for trips. As China will probably have many more cars in the next couple of years designs to encourage parking and vehicular flow will only tend to encourage more traffic.

Thirdly, if small streets are built into one-way thoroughfares it's more likely to make it more dangerous for cyclists.

The only thing that really reduces traffic in growing cities is a congestion charge, much like London's.

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