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In Beijing, All Roads Lead to Gridlock

Sam Crane teaches Chinese politics and philosophy at Williams College and is the author of "Aidan's Way."

In March, Bi Yuxi, one of Beijing’s top highway administrators, was sentenced to death for taking $1.2 million in bribes and misspending $360,000 of public funds. Set aside the question of whether a similar fate shouldn’t befall local bureaucrats who impede progress on Los Angeles traffic problems. For China the pressing question is: Will that nation’s explosion of cars ever escape the worse-than-L.A. gridlock that keeps many all but immobile in some cities?

It used to be so easy.

In the Maoist era, there was no traffic in Beijing. The few cars that plied the streets were government-owned, and there was never enough of them, even with buses and trucks, to cause congestion. The city’s wide boulevards and narrow side lanes were ruled by bicycles. If there was ever a question of enforcing transportation rules, a stern announcement from Communist Party officials was usually enough to keep the cyclists peddling smoothly.

Today, Beijing’s streets are flooded by every sort of motorized conveyance. Cab drivers complain there is no “rush hour” -- it lasts all day. City officials have tried everything to relieve the daily gridlock caused by about 2.6 million vehicles.

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Road construction is fast and furious, which makes sense. Beijing’s traffic problem stems from its extraordinarily rapid transition from a bicycle and bus culture to a car culture. In recent years, the number of cars has increased, on average, by about 15% a year, while urban road capacity has grown by about 3%. In the Chaoyang central business district, plans call for a new expressway, two trunk roads and dozens of other street projects.

Beijing authorities are also expanding public transportation, especially the subway and light-rail systems, to alleviate the traffic. Four metro lines are in service, with about 71 miles of track (L.A. has 73.1 miles). Four lines are under construction, with costs exceeding $1 billion.

Even grander urban planning is underway. The ancient map of Beijing radiated outward from the Imperial Palace to neighborhoods and suburbs. Socialist China followed the same pattern, with most government offices and major businesses located in the heart of the city. This “one center” layout has created the traffic disaster, as more and more drivers on the periphery plunge into the daily jam. In response, city authorities have announced plans for a “multi-center” metropolis, with government agencies moving to outer districts. The plans look great, but, so far, no agency has volunteered or been designated for relocation. It seems no one wants to leave a more prestigious inner-city address.

Bureaucratic intransigence is only one obstacle to solving Beijing’s traffic problems. Corruption is endemic to China’s public administration, and transportation is especially vulnerable to venality.

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There is a bright spot on Beijing’s traffic horizon -- the 2008 Olympics. National leaders are desperate for things to go well so China can claim its day of worldwide acclaim. They will exert tremendous pressure to complete the roads and subways and to realize urban plans to make the capital move smoothly.

It will be quite a race as the Communist Party rushes to the finish line against the growing onslaught of vehicles. If you’re going to the Olympics, you may be surprised by how well traffic flows. But bring walking shoes.


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