Menus Subscribe Search

Can China Avoid Getting Stuck in Traffic?

• February 06, 2011 • 5:00 AM

Amid a frenzy of car buying, the Chinese are losing the race for traffic space, but it’s not too late for them to take another road.

The new Great Wall of China is the “Great Wall” of cars stuck in city traffic, researchers say, and it will take more than restrictions on new license plates and car registrations to break the gridlock.

The problem is, there’s barely enough space on the roads in China’s largest cities for the 35 million cars that were bought during the past decade of frenzied consumerism, according to transportation experts at the University of California, Berkeley, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the ancient capital city of Xi’an, home of the buried armies of terracotta warriors, Lee Schipper said the joke is that if you want to drive in through the North Gate, you call your friend who’s leaving through the South Gate, so you can arrange to take his place. Schipper is a senior project scientist at UC Berkeley’s Global Metro Studies Center and a co-author of a 2010 study on China’s crowded cities.

“The number of cars is going up much faster in China than the length of the roads in the cities,” Schipper said. “The greatest ‘communist’ society ever invented doesn’t know what to do. That’s what worries me. Cars are not something any kind of government can easily control if they’re cheap to buy and cheap to drive.”

In Shanghai, a city of more than 20 million where new car registrations are restricted to 6,000 monthly, commuter traffic has slowed to 6 to 10 miles per hour, well under the speed of a bicycle. The traffic’s a mess, even though only 20 percent of all daily trips in Shanghai are by car, compared to 80 percent in U.S. cities. For the majority of Shanghaians, who are walking or biking or waiting at the bus stops, it means breathing in a lot of bad air.

“It’s what I call hyper-motorization,” Schipper said. “China’s cities have expanded to make room for cars, but congestion levels have spiraled upward and average speeds downward. Things freeze up regularly.”

Building more roads and adding lanes, as China is doing, will not solve the problem, Schipper said. The amount of urbanized land in Beijing has tripled since 1990, but now commutes are longer. China could build more cities, but the new roads would fill up quickly, too.

Schipper and co-authors Wei-Shiuen Ng and Yang Chen, Ph.D. students at UC Berkeley and MIT, respectively, suggest that China has a window of opportunity to solve its traffic woes before car ownership jumps much higher. If China were to hike its fuel tax on gasoline, levy tolls at rush hour, raise parking fees, encourage compact development along bus lines, and give up more road space to cyclists and fast bus routes, it could get the traffic moving and avoid potentially much worse gridlock, the researchers found.

“Every motorist should know what it really costs to bring a car into a zone where land space is scarce,” Schipper said.

Most people in China still travel by bus, bike or on foot. There are only 18 private vehicles for every 1,000 Chinese – roughly the level of ownership back in the 1920s in the United States. Today, there are 740 private vehicles for every 1,000 Americans. The average resident of China travels only 600 miles per year by bus, train, car or plane, compared to 15,000 motorized miles per capita for Americans.

But China is now the top auto market in the world, having surpassed the U.S. in sales in 2009. Last year, General Motors Co. sold more cars in China than in the U.S. If current trends continue, the research shows, China can expect 146 million private cars by 2020, or four times the number it has now.

“My role is not telling China what to do,” said Schipper, who has traveled to the country 20 times in the past decade to talk to city and transportation planners. “I can point to the consequences of what they do. The present path in China is towards more and more cars. Smaller towns of under 2 million people are not as crowded, but then people flee to the smaller towns and they get gummed up, too.”

This month, Beijing officials launched a lottery for new license plates to restrict new cars in the city to 240,000 in 2011. Last year, more than 700,000 cars were sold in the city. But the measure may backfire, Schipper said. Beijing residents rushed to buy 20,000 cars the day before the lottery went into effect; and people will likely drive their cars more now, sharing them with family and friends. Events such as the 10-day, 60-mile traffic jam on the outskirts of Beijing last summer could become more common.

A number of Chinese cities, including Beijing, are building rapid transit systems in which buses can travel in segregated lanes with priority at intersections. But these efforts to boost mass transportation are being overwhelmed.

“The Chinese don’t have much time,” Schipper said. “The longer they wait or take missteps, the harder it will be to recover. More and more consumers will be used to owning and using cars, and city development will be distorted increasingly towards a car-oriented pattern. The experience from nearby cities in Asia — Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila, to give three notorious examples — suggest that recovering from this pattern will be very, very difficult.”

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 1 • 4:00 PM

The Gaps in Federal Law That Are Making It Easy for Lenders to Sue Soldiers

Courts are required to appoint attorneys for service members if they are sued and can’t appear. But the law says little about what those lawyers must do. Some companies have taken advantage.


August 1 • 2:22 PM

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.


August 1 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Health Insurance Exchange Remains Surprisingly Active

New federal data, obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act, shows nearly one million insurance transactions since mid-April.



August 1 • 6:00 AM

The Idea of Racial Hierarchy Remains Entrenched in Americans’ Psyches

New research finds white faces are most closely associated with positive thoughts and feelings.


August 1 • 4:00 AM

How and Why Does the Social Become Biological?

To get closer to an answer, it’s helpful to look at two things we’ve taught ourselves over time: reading and math.



July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.