Concrete bungle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2007, 12:00am

Ma Bingsheng is fed up. After six years of battling Beijing's ever-slowing traffic, the fiftysomething taxi driver is preparing to do the once-unthinkable: retire in his wife's native village in Hebei province . 'Beijing has become impossible,' he said. 'You can't get around and the air is awful. There's nothing left for us old Beijingers. I'm getting out.'

Experts say Beijing is fast becoming the Los Angeles of China: gridlocked, heavily asphalted and fragmenting outwards along arterial and ring roads in a process that began in the 1950s.

Five giant ring roads - built by a different government department than the one responsible for downtown roads - circumnavigate the city. The second innermost ring running along the lines of the ancient city walls, was demolished after the 1949 revolution. Eight-, 10- and even 12-lane highways have replaced what was historically an elegant, people-sized centre with narrow hutongs that a horse-drawn cart could barely pass through.

Today, cars are pouring onto the roads at the rate of 1,500 a day, according to government figures. Liu Zhi , a senior infrastructure specialist at the World Bank, said the real number might be higher if cars registered in other cities were included. 'Now there's even suburban gridlock,' Dr Liu said.

Michael Woo is a Los Angeles city planning commissioner who also teaches at the University of Southern California. A frequent traveller to Beijing, where he has taken part in high-level transport and planning conferences, the former member of the Los Angeles city council recounts how on his latest trip to Beijing in August, he had what he calls 'the world's worst taxi ride'.

'It took 31/2 hours from the city centre to the airport, a combination of rush-hour traffic and a rainstorm. I ended up missing my flight to the US,' he said.

Such horror stories are commonplace. In 1996, Beijing had 170,000 privately owned vehicles; by next year it is projected to have 3.5 million, more than 20 times as many. Officials say 3.7 million is the saturation point, a figure which could easily be surpassed in 2009. Their solution is to lay more asphalt, a strategy experts warn only encourages car use.

Peak rush-hour traffic speeds have slowed to 6km/h, the World Bank says. Peng Zhongren , professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida, has calculated speeds as low as 5km/h, with about 20 per cent of the city's roads in total gridlock. Both buses and subways are hopelessly overcrowded, and cyclists, who once enjoyed dedicated lanes in the Bicycle Kingdom, are losing their rights of way to cars, with the full approval of city authorities.

Despite the clear urban planning and transport challenges facing the city, officials are widely seen as failing to take effective counter-measures.

'There's so much force behind pushing for roads,' mostly from the powerful Ministry of Construction, said Neville Mars, chairman of the Dynamic City Foundation, a Dutch government-sponsored, not-for-profit, urban planning body set up by architects and planners in response to the Chinese government's stated plans to build 400 new cities by 2020.

Incremental measures such as restrictions on private vehicle use, the introduction of congestion charges or higher parking fees are, for now, largely ignored. Online chat rooms regularly report new measures in the offing, but on Tuesday, a spokesman for the city's development and reconstruction committee denied these once again. 'We are not discussing this, and I cannot say if we will in the future, either,' he said.

Professor Peng said the city was, literally, at a crossroads. He said it must choose if it wanted to follow what he called the Singapore/Hong Kong model or the Bangladesh model. The first included measures such as increasing inner-city parking charges and a congestion charge, as well as auctioning car licenses and massive investment in public transport. The Bangladesh model included unrestricted car ownership, a focus on road expansion, and little or no co-ordination between land use and transport planning.

Currently, experts agree, Beijing is headed for the Bangladesh model.

'Looking into the future, there are lessons that can be learned from other cities in Asia,' said Professor Peng. 'I think cities in China should follow the Singapore/Hong Kong model and avoid following the Bangladesh model.'

Dr Liu said the root of the problem lay in discussions that began in 1994 in the capital.

'There was a debate in the Chinese government whether it should go for motorisation, which would be a similar path [to development] as in South Korea, Thailand and other Asian countries,' Dr Liu said.

China wanted to develop a car industry, as well as the insurance, banking and petrol distribution industries that went with it. Cars were declared a pillar of the national economy.

'They made the decision to move up the value chain. This is very natural. To have an international car industry you first must have a domestic car industry,' said Dr Liu.

The brakes were off, and city authorities were forbidden to limit the ownership of private vehicles (although Dr Liu said that Shanghai had done exactly that and has got away with it).

'I have noticed that buying a car is almost a patriotic obligation,' said Professor Woo. 'The government is reluctant to be seen as thwarting the public will by clamping down.'

Beijing has scores of transport experts who have drawn up multiple plans to improve the situation.

They predict a raft of short-term measures to cut traffic around the Olympics, and officials holding

news conferences for the international media touting impressive-sounding 'intelligent traffic systems'.

In reality, institutional barriers have hindered solutions, said Dr Liu. 'There is no lack of knowledge of sustainable urban transport. So, why is it so difficult to translate knowledge into effective action and real outcomes?'

Dr Liu said a key issue was the lack of incentives. 'The checks and balances mechanism that can be seen in some countries in the form of a city council is not there,' he said. Government departments also lacked co-ordination. 'The planning system needs to be strengthened so the process really can reflect rapid change.'

Officials, stuck in traffic jams in their ubiquitous black limousines, are aware of the problem, although many simply resort to extra-loud horns and to driving illegally on the hard shoulder.

'In general there has not been a consistent political will in Beijing to use the power of government to influence commuter behaviour,' said Professor Woo. Experts agree an effective traffic police would be a starting point, as rampant rule-breaking leads to inefficient traffic flows.

Professor Woo also said other road users needed protection. 'Pedestrians, cyclists and cars are not clearly delineated,' he said. 'At best it's inefficient, at worst it's dangerous.'

With daily commutes totalling four hours not unusual, the government is now pinning its hopes on subway lines, and says the city will have 561km of subway routes by 2020, more than the current world leader, London. The public is fed an almost daily diet of front-page newspaper stories about construction progress on Beijing's different lines. In an effort to increase subway use, the government last year cut fares from three yuan to two yuan.

But transport experts says the subways may not hit the target: the middle-class car-buying market. They say poor people will always be dependent on public transport, but the rich have choices.

With giant highways criss-crossing the city, even getting to a subway station can be difficult. Many white-collar employees, smartly dressed for a day of meetings, are reluctant to walk long distances in baking summers or sub-zero winters.

'This makes the really very ambitious subway plans almost useless,' said Mr Mars.

Acknowledging the problem, city officials recently announced plans for a golf-cart-style service from the key Guomao subway stop to nearby office buildings in Chaoyang business district, although many commuters say it will merely create additional bottlenecks.

Mr Mars said buses and trolleys in dedicated lanes, with more stops closer to homes, were the solution. 'In reality, buses already carry 80 per cent of the public.'

Mr Mars and his team are busy working out what he describes as 'ideal scenarios' to solve the growing problem. These include building Hong Kong-style escalators to lift people off the roads. The third and fourth ring roads should be complemented by 'travelators' or 'D-rails', levitation trains that slow to a crawl for people to get off and speed up between drop-off points.

'These scenarios are based on real research and they show what would be possible in Beijing. This is our attempt to re-engineer the city back to a pedestrian zone, which is what it originally was,' said Mr Mars.

Dr Liu said: 'There's no one-off fix for this problem. You have to do one thousand things and all of them are very small.'

With the city growing bigger by the day, now topping 17 million inhabitants, experts agree the problem will get worse before it gets better.

'The traffic jams we are seeing are nothing. They are child's play compared to what we have to anticipate,' said Mr Mars. 'Most people in Beijing are still considering buying a car. It's just coming within their reach.'

For Professor Woo, the LA scenario can still be avoided. 'It's not too late yet, but it would require dramatic action and developing a very different attitude towards the role of the car in the city.'

Mao Baohua , a transport expert at Beijing Jiaotong University, said: 'Beijing people need to drop their habit of 'using the car for everything'.' Instead, the Seoul model of high ownership and low use would work well in the mainland's crowded cities.

During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, changes to working hours and other short-term measures led to a 10 per cent drop in car use. 'It had a big effect,' said Professor Woo.

'You don't have to get everybody to stop using cars to see a noticeable improvement.

'But unfortunately there was no political will to continue it after the Olympics were over,' he said, predicting that the same may happen in Beijing.