The Need for Speed: Beijing’s Traffic Woes

By November 9, 2007 No Comments

With Beijing’s population recently surpassing 17 million and the increasing number of cars on the road, it has become increasingly difficult to travel from place to place. Planners are attempting to balance preservation, pollution and other concerns with the need to speed up the traffic flow.


Beijing resident Xiao Sun leaves for work at 6:30 a.m. each morning, driving about 10 km (about six miles) an hour in the city’s nightmarishly slow traffic.

“The roads become a large parking lot,” Xiao Sun said. While he complains about it, he also recognizes that he is part of the problem for Beijing simply has too many cars.

Since the early 1980s, traffic experts have argued that the only feasible answer to China’s increasing need to move around more urbanites is expanding public transportation.

“In the 1980s, the city didn’t cater to the massive number of vehicles [we have] today,” said Mao Shoulong, the director and professor of Renmin University’s School of Public Administration. “The main streets looked wide, and there are spacious lanes for bikes and pedestrians,” Mao continued. “Now the bicycle lanes are all occupied by vehicles, but the roads still look tight.”

According to a May 2007 Beijing Traffic Management Bureau report, there are more than three million vehicles in the city, 1.9 million of which are privately owned. Increasing from two million to three million cars on the road took Beijing less than four years. And the city does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon. The number of vehicles in Beijing is soaring by nearly one thousand cars a day.

Car sales have been booming in Beijing, yielding heavy traffic congestion and creating a pressing problem for the city’s future. The time it takes to travel from Peking University to the Beijing Central Railway Station (about 20 km or about 13 miles away) by bus is anywhere from 40 minutes to one and a half hours. By taxi it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to two and a half hours, said Meng Jiang, a Peking University graduate who now works in the city. Bus times vary less because they have their own lane on some main roads. In contrast, taxis have to compete with all other vehicles.

“The city is currently undergoing a massive shift from human-powered transportation to motorized transportation, creating a golden opportunity to adjust the transportation structure,” Quan Yongshen, the head of Beijing’s Traffic Development Research Center, told Liaowang (Outlook Weekly).

Public transportation, however, is not the only answer to the city’s modernization, much to the delight (and chagrin) of Beijing residents.

“It may not be as easy to persuade current car owners to take the bus and subway as they used to years ago,” Mao said. “The air-conditioning and greater elbow room make up for the frequent traffic congestion.”

The key issue is whether to develop the city like private vehicle-centric Los Angeles or like mass transit-focused Tokyo. In other words, the question is whether to make Beijing a city for private cars or for mass transit-reliant riders.

Cities like Tokyo, London and Paris have all experienced a “car boom” and have adopted a pedestrian-centered infrastructure by restricting the use of private vehicles. Public transportation now represents 60% of those cities’ travel systems, sometimes even reaching 90%, significantly easing traffic congestion pressure. China’s public transportation accounts for only 30% of the total passengers while privately-owned vehicles account for over 25% of the total, according to an interview with Quan Yongshen by Liaowang. The remaining residents travel by taxi, bicycle and walking.

Los Angeles and other cities have taken a different approach, becoming “cities without borders.” Instead of developing a comprehensive and efficient public transportation system, Los Angeles encouraged reliance on private vehicles by promoting far-flung developments linked by roads. The bulk of transportation funds are allocated to freeway lane expansion. Accordingly, mass transit in Los Angeles accounts for less than 10% of all passenger trips.

Compared to Los Angeles, Beijing has a denser population and less land available for development. Moreover, this ancient city has many important historical sites, making it difficult to build roads without threatening significant landmarks. “With more places being encircled by walls and gates, there are fewer roads for cars, which is different from the ‘block structure’ in the U.S.,” Mao said. Consequently, preventing urban sprawl and developing mass transit are the central components of the strategy to mitigate Beijing’s traffic woes.

Beijing is oriented along a north-south axis with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square at its center. For decades, city planners have used “ring” roads orbiting the two as the main way for cars to travel. Within Beijing itself, an elaborate network of five ring roads, which appear more rectangular than ring-shaped, has developed. Roads in Beijing often are in one of the four compass directions.

As one of the few cities to possess multiple ring roads (or beltways), planners argue that the current layout of Beijing is the root cause of the city’s endless traffic jams. “This city’s development is like a radiation from the center,” Mao said. “As a result of the center-out development pattern, the city’s public service organizations, educational establishments, and occupational areas all lie along the inner layer of ring roads, leading to high-density populations in those places.”

The ring roads are notorious for rush hour traffic jams. Especially troublesome is the third ring road (sanhuanlu) as its eastern side is the only ring road that runs directly through Beijing’s Central Business District (CBD).

Of course, beyond the issues of traffic on the rings is the issue of the road network itself. For many Beijing residents whose work and home locations are in opposite directions and outside of a ring, traveling to and from work includes taking a tour around the city every day because no major routes connect the city diagonally. Furthermore, commuters who live on the outskirts of the city cannot take full advantage of the rings, as the rings do not merge nor allow the commuter to take a direct route out of the city. Given that urban development is hampered by restrictions on the use of undeveloped land, restructuring the ring road network or building new highways through the city would be difficult—if not impossible.

One of the worst consequences of Beijng’s traffic congestion is an increase in air pollution. Since Beijing has promised better air quality for the upcoming 2008 Olympics, the city plans to restrict private vehicle use. Motorized vehicle exhaust accounts for more than 70% of the city’s air pollution. Unless there is a change in policies, the tens of thousands of new vehicles joining the rush each month will only worsen the vehicle-produced and congestion-exacerbated pollution problem.

This past August, Beijing conducted a four-day experiment to see if authorities could pull 1.3 million cars off the road and whether that would reduce air pollution. Xinhua, the official news agency, quoted air quality experts as saying that exhaust emissions dropped by 40% and use of public transport increased. However, long-term vehicle restrictions are impractical because of possible compliance issues from the ever-growing privatized car industry. “The rich would simply buy another car with an odd (or even) license plate,” Xiao Sun joked. “Those who cannot afford to buy a car may want to just buy a second plate from the black market, so they could still drive every day.”

Planners now hope to alleviate these problems by constructing massive parking lots in the city’s fourth and fifth ring road areas. They hope commuters will park for free or low cost, and then take one of several modes of public transportation into the Central Business District. The Beijing Municipal Communications Commission is already considering building the first such lot at Sihui, near the intersection of Chang’an Avenue and the fourth ring road.

This project includes an ongoing subway improvement and expansion program with plans to expand underground lines from the current 114 km (about 70 miles) to roughly 481 km (about 300 miles) by 2015.

Beijing authorities have worked to ensure the accessibility of its subway system in terms of both affordability and availability. The fifth line, which cost 12 billion yuan (US $1.6 billion) and took five years to construct, is the first to cut north-south across the city, intersecting with all existing lines and making it easier to transfer between lines.

To lure riders from cars, fares have been reduced from three to five yuan down to a uniform rate of two yuan (roughly a US quarter). It also allows commuters to transfer from any line to another with no additional cost. “The new single price system will help me save at least half of my subway spending,” said Mu Chen, who currently uses both the subway and buses to get to work.

Beijing’s position as host of the 2008 Olympics makes the traffic issue more than a local problem; it is of international concern. “Beijing currently emphasizes publicity efforts, such as encouraging the people to take public transportation,” Mao said, “but if this does not work well, Beijing will also consider enforcing coordinated regulations during the Olympics.”

Progress, however, cannot go out of the window once the Olympics are over.

“After the Olympics, in the long run, the city’s traffic development should be in the direction of a public-transportation orientated system,” Mao continued. “The government should continue investing to make that happen.”

Lawrence Gu is a high school senior at Granada Hills Senior High School.

Xiang Wang is currently pursuing a Master of Education in Instructional Technology and Educational Psychology at the University of Southern California.

For more photos relating to Beijing’s public transportation system, visit William Sun’s website at http://photo.163.com/photos/oentouch/139992337/