On the outskirts of Beijing last weekend, I joined a group of travelers who got out of their cars to chat, munch on snacks and play card games. Children ran happily ahead of their parents taking a stroll, while a few other people decided to relieve themselves in the open.
A light rain failed to dampen the spirits and everyone seemed to be having a picnic in the great outdoors, except that it wasn't - we were actually stuck in a traffic jam on the G6 highway toward Badaling, less than 70 km from downtown Beijing.
Unlike in many other jams, not a single motorist sounded his car horn in frustration during our hour-long wait when numerous overloaded cargo trucks blocking the highway made it impossible to see what was causing the disruption ahead.
Indeed, Chinese travelers can be disconcertingly comfortable with gridlock.
My latest experience with terrible traffic in this country could not even compare with one of its worst jams that started more than a week ago and eased earlier this week only to resume on Friday.
The 96-km-long nightmare stretched from Beijing to the Inner Mongolia autonomous region and has been blamed on road construction that will not be completed until September.
Numerous issues have been raised over the epic jam. Some people have pointed to a drastic increase in the number of overloaded trucks, mostly carrying coal from inland mines to coastal ports to feed the country's growing energy needs, as one of the main culprits for the latest holdup. The congestion also highlighted the country's inadequate highways and roads that have been unable to cope with a rising number of car owners riding on the back of fast-paced development.
But China, which has overtaken the United States as the largest auto market, is already undertaking a huge expansion of its national road network.
The country's national highway system stretches 85,000 km and is set to hit 100,000 km in the next decade, a length similar to what is currently in the US, Ministry of Communications plans show. China has been home to one of the longest networks of highways since 2001, too. It completed the construction of nearly 5,000 km of expressways last year and launched the construction of another 16,000 km.
All these point to the promise of progress and an improvement in the country's transportation system, but they can still bring with them the problems of traffic congestion to disrupt the economy and people's lives.
The threat of extreme congestion looms over Beijing in the next five years.
The capital, which has more than 4.5 million automobiles on its roads now, can only hold 6.5 million cars, figures from its traffic development research center show.
It took less than three years for the total number of vehicles in the city to grow from 3 million in early 2007 to 4 million. More than 40 percent of the motorists also say they drive even if the distance they travel is less than 5 km.
Beijingers are already wasting more of their time on the city's congested roads, researchers say. Residents spent an average of 62.3 minutes on daily commutes during rush hour last year, a rise of more than 7 minutes from 2007, a study by Beijing-based Horizon Research found.
Faced with such ominous figures, more must be done to prevent traffic congestion on the nation's roads before it gets out of control. Authorities will have to forge ahead with investment in public transportation to reduce the number of private cars on the road. Similar efforts must be made to boost traffic management and raise public awareness of the benefits of driving less for the economy, environment and people's lives.
That is because if Chinese commuters get too comfortable and used to gridlock on their roads, they will find themselves increasingly trapped in a scourge of development they will not be able to escape from.
The author is a senior editor of China Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(China Daily 08/28/2010 page5)