New law aims to ease traffic woes
"Where were you 'trapped' today?"
According to taxi driver Yao Shan, many of his fellow taxi drivers in the Chinese capital have developed the habit of "greeting" each other this way after a day's work, referring to where they were caught up in traffic congestion.
At 36, Yao has been a driver for nearly 20 years. "I'm seriously considering whether to switch to another job," he tells Xinhua.
During rush hours, according to Yao, nearly half of his time on road is wasted in traffic jams. Says he, "Sometimes I tell my passengers to get off if they like, or we would both feel uncomfortable watching the fast-running odometer."
Beijingers have to ensure the same ordeal day after day. The Beijing Municipal Traffic Management Bureau (BTMB) admits that every day, 40 percent of the city's wage earners spend at least one hour commuting between their homes and workplaces, and that only 5.5 percent of them are able to reach their workplaces in less than 20 minutes.
In quite a few places in downtown Beijing, cars and buses have to inch forward at a snail's pace during rush hours. In 1994, the speed averaged 45 kilometers per hour for vehicles on roads within the Third Ring Road. Right now, it is no more than 20 kilometers per hour, and in some busiest intersections it can be brought down to seven kilometers per hour, barely faster than walking on foot.
Drivers like Yao expects that the new traffic law taking effect on May 1 this year will help ease the traffic congestion, as unethical driving practices of many on the wheel are an important factor for the jams.
According to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau (BTMB), 1, 018 traffic accidents are reported in the city every day, and 80% of them are caused by "apprentice drivers" - those who have just obtained a driving license after a couple of weeks' training at a driving school.
Drunken drivers are not exceptional even though they could be sentenced to up to seven years in jail for causing an accident that results in deaths. Unruly driving aggravates the problem of traffic congestion. When a car breaks down at a busy intersection during rush hours, a queue of several hundred cars will form behind it in just seconds.
With the promulgation of the Law on Road Traffic and Safety Saturday, tougher penalties will be levied to above-mentioned violators and drivers, bicycle riders as well as pedestrians are expected to behave in manners more conducive to the smooth flow of traffic.
However, many are still not optimistic about the traffic prospect with just the enaction of this law. There are people who also attribute the problem of traffic congestion to too rapid an increase in the number of private cars.
The number of cars has kept increasing at an annual average of 15 percent in the most recent years. And currently, Beijing has more than 2 million automobiles. Of these, 1.28 million or 64 percent are private cars, averaging 31 for every 100 families. The annual increase in the carrying capacity of urban roads, however, has grown at a mere 3 percent. It seems that car owners like to use their vehicles as heavily as possible. In Beijing, a car runs 47,400 kilometers per year on an average, almost three times the figure for the United States.
"We should curb the use of private cars," says Zhang Guowu, professor with the Beijing Jiaotong University, who is a chief exponent of the idea that that urges the government to strengthen traffic management and raise parking fees in order to reduce the number of private cars and their use. "The government should also encourage people to use public transport," he adds.
Good idea, sure, but unfortunately unrealistic. Just look at those long queues at bus stations and those buses jammed with passengers you'll know why so many people borrow to buy cars. With a population of 13 million, the city has 54 kilometers of subway lines, which handle 10 percent of the city's public transport volume and account for 5 percent of the city's total traffic flow. In contrast, Tokyo, with a population roughly as large, has an urban rail network of 2,000 kilometers in length, which handles 80 percent of the city's passenger volume. The figure is 70 percent for Paris and 55 percent for Moscow.
At long last, Beijing officials have come to realize that to tackle the problem at its root, they have to change the layout of the entire urban Beijing - to change the outmoded, monolithic urban planning, to be more exact.
In mid-March, Mayor Wang Qishan made public a blueprint for the development of city in the future, which calls for "perfecting the two axes, developing two belts and building multiple centers." The idea behind the official jargon is simple: to evacuate some of the "urban functions" from the city center to peripheral areas.
According to Liu Xiaoming, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Traffic Committee, multi-functional centers will be built in suburban districts such as Tongzhou and Shunyi. These are to eventually develop into medium-sized cities each with a populations of more than half a million and fitted with education, cultural, public hygiene, medical and commercial facilities. People living there will work near their homes, without having to shuttle between their homes in remote satellite towns and their workplaces in downtown Beijing, Liu said.
The government also plans to build parking lots along the fourth and fifth ring roads where with car may be deposited for free or for just a small fee to facilitate change of their owners for bus or metro.
"By 2010, public transport is likely to handle carry 60 percent of the city's total traffic flow, up from 26 percent now," Liu says.
By 2010, Beijing's population will have grown to 15-16 million, and the number of cars used in the city, from two million to 3.8 million. The local press has given much publicity to the blueprint, but not a few Beijingers take it with a grain of salt. "Can I still be able to drive on the road without being 'trapped' so often then?" Yao Shan asks.