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    Greater China
     Jun 20, 2006
Beijing faces Olympian traffic woes
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - The sixth annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), much to the relief of officials in Shanghai, ended last week without major incident, reaffirming the city's, and the country's, ability to host major international events.
Leaders at the summit of the SCO, which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, agreed to a Chinese-led plan to increase military cooperation and also discussed a Russian proposal to create a regional "energy club".

The SCO also indicated it would soon invite Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia - which currently have observer status in the organization - to become full members.

To ensure the smooth running of the SCO summit, the municipal



government in Shanghai had taken the extraordinary measure of giving its citizens an extra five-day holiday for the duration.

Apparently, security and social control were the authorities' major concerns. Apart from this, nevertheless, the move would also seem an experiment in traffic control for major international gatherings in big Chinese cities. Certainly, Shanghai's experience will be insightful for Beijing, which is to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2008.

On this, a Beijing official privately said over the weekend that the Shanghai practice of traffic control "is a good rehearsal" for the Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

The Shanghai government's decision to grant a five-day holiday - which much of the private sector embraced - was effective as many cars stopped rolling through the streets and residents either stayed at home or left the city. However, such effective measures can only be imposed by an autocratic government.

Beijing, which is still looking hard for solutions to its increasingly serious traffic-congestion problem ahead of the Olympics, may indeed learn something from Shanghai.

With a sharp increase in motor vehicles and lagging behind in infrastructure construction, traffic jams have become a daily headache of Beijing residents.

In 1949, when the communists took power, there were only several thousand motor vehicles in the capital. Forty-eight years later, in 1997, Beijing announced it had a million automobiles on the road. At that time, officials and experts predicted that the number could grow to 2 million by 2010. But their prediction proved too conservative.

The number of registered motor vehicles in Beijing hit 2 million in August 2003, when many excitedly hailed "the coming of the automobile age".

According to the Beijing government's statistics, by the end of 2005 there were 2.15 million registered civilian motor vehicles in the city. Taking into account military vehicles, which do not need to be registered, the total could be more than 2.3 million. And given the growth rate, the number of vehicles in Beijing could reach 3.5 million by 2008.

Compared with other major metropolises, such as Tokyo and New York, the number of cars in Beijing may still be small. However, road construction and traffic management in the capital city lag far behind because of the faster-than-expected growth of car use.

For instance, Beijing's infrastructure-construction plan for the 2008 Olympics is based on the projection that by then the city would have only 2 million motor vehicles.

The Olympics will be held between August 8 and 24, 2008. It is expected that about 50,000 athletes, journalists and officials from more than 200 countries and regions will be in Beijing, in addition to millions of visiting spectators. In other words, there will be millions more daily trips made on Beijing's city transportation network.

To find traffic solutions, the government invited more than 100 experts from across the country for a conference in late 2004. Some of the experts suggested that Beijing increase its investment to improve its public-transport system, such as building more underground railway lines or maglev (magnetic levitation) rails. Others proposed building more express highways and improving traffic management.

For Beijing officials, such proposals may sound like the old Chinese saying that "distant water won't put out a fire close at hand" - meaning it takes time to implement the experts' proposals, but time has become a luxury.

Even to improve the city's traffic management is no easy task. Beijing is built with Tiananmen Square as its center. But to protect the Forbidden City and neighboring Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Communist Party and the central government, no flyovers or tunnels are allowed in the vicinity. Thus numerous road intersections make for a bottleneck for traffic.

There is also a shortage of parking lots. Normally, a city needs 130 parking places for every 100 cars. But Beijing only has 73 parking slots for every 100 cars. As a result, many cars have to park on roads or sidewalks. This shortage cannot be easily solved because of a shortage of land in Beijing.

Fully aware of the difficulties, the Beijing municipal government has taken measures to tackle the problem. According to Yu Chunquan, vice director of the Beijing transportation bureau, one of these is to speed up the building of new highways and renovation of existing ones.

Yu said that in the run-up to 2008, Beijing would build 1,509 kilometers of new highways and roads. Renovation of existing roads will total 2,530km. At the same time, Beijing will improve its public-transport network, including building underground railways.

In addition, Beijing will try to improve traffic management by recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers to help traffic police during international events.

Beijing will also discourage the use of private cars during the Olympics and designate certain roads as "Olympic expressways" for authorized vehicles only.

"From all perspectives, Shanghai's practice [of letting citizens take holidays] is insightful. It is like a rehearsal on traffic control for the Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo," a Beijing official said this weekend.

But the SCO meeting lasted just a couple of days, while the Olympics will last two weeks. "To let all government institutions close for two weeks may be too much. So special arrangements need to be made," the official said. There will be no problem for schools, as the Olympics take place in August during summer vacation, but the effect on industry's productivity would be heavy.

In the long run, if China really wants to embrace the "age of automobiles", its construction of infrastructure facilities must catch up with the growth in the number of cars.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


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