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Traffic chaos snarls former 'bicycle kingdom' of Beijing

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
  • Beijing was once known as the "bicycle kingdom"
  • Auto sales are expected to top 12 million this year in China
  • Last year, close to 70,000 people died on Chinese roads
  • Government is scrambling to improve mass transit services

Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- If Beijing keeps adding so many cars so quickly, its wide highways will turn into a sprawling parking lot.

That's what I was thinking one rainy Friday night as I stared at the traffic gridlock that stranded millions of commuters on Beijing's web of highways and roads. It took me nearly one-and-a-half hours to navigate 25 km (15 miles) from Peking University to my home.

"A moderate rain is enough to paralyze Beijing's traffic!" noted a front-page story on Beijing Youth Daily the next day. That night there were 140 bottlenecks in which vehicles crawled slower than 20 km per hour.

It was the worst congestion since January, when a heavy snowfall choked 90 areas along the road.

Video: China's massive traffic jam
  • Beijing
  • China
  • Transportation
  • Asia

"I could have read the Beijing Evening News back-to-back during the whole hour I was stuck in traffic," said taxi driver Liu Renjie. "It was a total waste of time and gas. Of course, I lost money."

Liu's complaints are understandable: Friday's gridlock was a painful experience for Beijing residents, who only a few decades ago lived in the famed "bicycle kingdom" that boasted traffic-less roads and lots of bikes.

When I studied in Peking University during the late 1970s, I used to zip from campus to central Beijing in 45 minutes on my Flying Pigeon bicycle. Even during the early 1990s, my Toyota could navigate the route in 30 minutes.

No longer. More and more Chinese are embracing car culture, thanks to double-digit economic growth during the past 30 years and the emergence of the affluent middle class, who are trading up their two wheels for four.

"The traffic congestion is partly due to the fast development of our auto industry," said Li Binren, chief economist at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. "More and more people are buying private cars."

Auto sales nationwide are expected to top 12 million this year. Read about an epic traffic jam in China in August

Beijing has more than 6 million drivers and 4.5 million vehicles. Officials at the Beijing Transportation Research Center project that number will exceed 7 million by 2015.

Last May, Li Nian, a white-collar worker in Beijing, forked out 181,000 yuan ($27,000) to buy a Volkswagen Golf sedan.

"I live far from work so I bought one for the convenience," he said. "Buses are too slow and subway lines are too few and too crowded."

Li paid in cash, using a big chunk of his family's savings. "Cars have become more affordable so it makes sense to get one," he said.

After last Friday, Li was no longer sure. Aside from the worsening traffic, he complained about high gas prices and parking fees.

"I heard parking fees may get even more expensive. That means we may drive less and less."

Li already has to keep his car off the road once a week. To alleviate congestion, traffic authorities ban vehicles from taking to the road once a week, according to the last digit of the license plate.

Li said he can put up with the one-day ban, but he complained about poor traffic management and the erratic habits of Beijing's "malu shashou" -- or "road killers" -- new, inexperienced and bad drivers who often cause traffic accidents.

Driving in Beijing is not for the faint of heart: Last year, close to 70,000 people died on Chinese roads -- an improvement on previous years -- compared to 33,963 in the United States. These numbers prompted the Communist Party's Civilization Promotion Office to launch a "civilized driving, harmonious travel" campaign -- with modest success.

"I drive defensively," Li Nian said.

The government is also taking other measures to reduce traffic jams and pollution. On Wednesday, Beijing was one of 110 cities to observe car-free day, designating car-free zones around some business hubs, adding more bus routes and encouraging residents to use public transport.

Friends of Nature, a conservation group, also organized a symbolic "Bike for better Beijing" campaign to advocate bicycle travel and highlight the issue of acute traffic congestion.

Official statistics show that while car use in Beijing has risen sharply, bicycle numbers has dropped from 34.7 percent to 18.1 percent in 2009.

"As people's lives are improving, some tend to think that driving their private cars is a way to show their decent social status," Friends of Nature's Xu Yinjie told Xinhua News Agency.

The government is scrambling to improve mass transit services by opening subway lines -- seven in Beijing by the end of this year -- and putting more buses on the roads. The city has also lowered public transport fares.

It's welcome news for Li Nian. "If public transport is very convenient," he said, "I'd rather ride than drive."