My colleagues and I met at the office and got on a bus bound for Yuyuantan Park, by the Millennium Museum, on Saturday at 4:45 pm.
We were supposed to arrive there well before 6 pm and then board a boat to cruise along the channel linking the western part of Beijing to the Summer Palace. The tour was a special offer by the channel management company.
However, as soon as the bus turned onto the northern third ring road, it slowed to a crawl. The problem wasn't the bus, which was in perfect condition, but the road, which seemed more like slow-moving parking lot than a thoroughfare.
At first, I was oblivious to both the time and the traffic as I was immersed in a discussion with my Aussie colleague about learning Chinese. But when I saw the huge signs of the (Jinyuan) New Yansha Mall, I was shocked. I asked if the driver mistakenly thought we were going to board the boat at the Summer Palace, instead of at Yuyuantan Park.
No, he had been told to drop us off at the park.
That's when I then realized the driver was taking a roundabout way to the park in order not to get stuck in the traffic. The decision increased the distance to our destination by about a third. We arrived about half an hour after the scheduled departure time.
As I calculated how much more fossil fuel he had burned and CO2 he produced, it dawned on me that that day also happened to be "no-car day" in 108 cities across the country. City dwellers had been encouraged to ride bikes or take public transportation, instead of driving cars.
However, it seemed to me that traffic was as bad on Beijing's no-car day as it was on any normal Saturday, maybe even worse. Local traffic police announced that the traffic on some 80 streets was moving at 10-20 kmph as dusk fell.
I don't think people intentionally defied the public campaign. In fact, the traffic might have been worse if so many people had not decided to leave their cars at home.
After all, the traffic during the weekend right before any holiday week is notoriously busy. That was clear on Saturday, one of the last two days off before the National Day holiday week starting this coming Monday. Many people were preparing for their journeys out of Beijing this weekend.
Meanwhile, the people who did take public transportation last Saturday did not have many nice things to say about the experience. In fact, in a survey conducted on Sunday by the Beijing News newspaper, some 78 percent of the respondents said the buses and subways were too crowded, and only 10 percent were satisfied or somewhat satisfied with public transportation.
The same was true in Harbin, where residents seemed to have embraced no-car day with great enthusiasm - some 90 percent went about their business by bus. Yet, 70 percent of the respondents to a local survey said they were not satisfied with public transportation.
All of this points to the fact that it will be quite difficult to obtain a greener traffic system through a single-day campaign. More concrete programs need to be put in place to make people want to abandon driving in favor of public transportation.
Meanwhile, the traffic management system needs to be improved so that vehicles flow smoothly enough that people will not feel the need to behave like our bus driver, who, in search of a shortcut, ended up adding time to the journey while adding to the congestion on the roads.
(China Daily 09/27/2007 page10)