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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.