BEIJING – Endless lines of slow-moving cars emerge like apparitions and then disappear again into the gloom of the thick smog that has shrouded Beijing and reduced its skyline to blurry gray shapes.
With more than 13 million cars sold in China last year, motor vehicles have emerged as the chief culprit for the throat-choking air pollution in big cities especially Beijing.
As the Chinese middle-class expanded dramatically over the last 20 years, cars became the new symbol of prosperity. With the economy continuing to grow, the love affair with cars will only bloom more, and is already posing a challenge for dealing with the hazardous air pollution in urban China with widespread impact on health, productivity and quality of life.
The attachment for automobiles has turned into a vicious cycle.
"To be honest, the more the air is polluted, the more I prefer to drive, as I don't like taking a crowded bus or walking outside in such bad air," said subway train driver Gao Fei.
Twenty years ago, bikes, not cars, owned the streets. Today, "buying a car is like buying a bicycle," said Gao as he drove his black Buick Regal sedan in west Beijing.
"It hasn't been long since Chinese people owned their own cars. So for them a car is still something quite fresh and so they prefer to drive after so many years of riding bicycles," he said. "They still would prefer to enjoy the traffic jam rather than suffer on the crowded bus."
In the 1990s, the few vehicles on the roads belonged to the government or state companies. Private car ownership took off exponentially only in the last decade.
The government has promoted car buying as a way of keeping the economy growing with banks offering attractive car loans. These policies, and the traditional Chinese habit of saving, have put cars like Gao's Buick Regal (price tag 180,000 yuan, or $29,000) within the reach of many Chinese even though the average annual salary in Beijing is 56,000 yuan ($8,900).
The result has been increased vehicle emissions.
While burning of coal for power plants is a major source of air pollution across China, vehicle emissions are the single biggest source of PM2.5 — a secondary pollutant that forms in the air and is tiny enough to enter deep into the lungs — in Beijing, according to the capital's former vice mayor, Hong Feng.
He says vehicles account for 22 percent of PM2.5 in the capital, followed by 17 percent from coal burning and 16 percent from construction site dust. In recent days, air quality went off the index in Beijing as the capital turned into a white landscape with buildings eaten up by murk.
China's increasingly informed and vocal citizens have successfully pushed the government to be more transparent about how bad the air is, taking to the country's lively social media to call for better information and even testing the air themselves. Hourly air quality updates are now available online for more than 70 cities, and two particularly bad bouts of hazardous air this month received unprecedented coverage in the state media.
But as Chinese get richer, their desire for cleaner air conflicts with their growing dependence on cars.
When Beijing resident Wang Hui leaves her home she usually gets in her Toyota Camry, bought seven months ago mainly for her husband to meet clients for the business the couple run designing science labs. Now she couldn't imagine life without it.
Wang said it would be tough to take care of her 5-year-old son "by myself while holding several shopping bags at the same time."
"My husband really needs a car for the business, it is just more convenient. So we wouldn't give up the car even if pollution is getting worse, one car can't make a difference, and we really need it for our life."
China is the biggest car market in the world by number of vehicles sold. But it still lags far behind developed markets in terms of the ratio of cars to people. In 2010 in China, only 31 per 1,000 people owned a car, compared with 424 per 1,000 people in the United States, said IHS analyst Namrita Chow.
More than 13 million passenger cards were sold in China in 2012, an annual increase of 7.6 percent, according to data from IHS Automotive, and it expects an annual growth rate of 11 percent in 2013. The majority of new car sales are in the interior — poorer — regions of China, where the government is aiming to push growth by raising salaries, and therefore providing higher disposable incomes.
In Beijing alone, the number of vehicles has increased to 5.18 million from 3.13 million in early 2008, Xinhua reported Monday.
In a bid to limit the number of cars, the city has adopted a license plate lottery system and stopped a fifth of cars from driving into the city on each weekday under threat of fines. To get around this car owners sometimes remove their license plates to avoid monitoring cameras or buy second cars.
Vehicle emissions are compounded by a lack of effective public transportation, low emission standards and the slow development of energy-saving and clean automobile technologies, the Asian Development Bank says in its environmental analysis of China.
Beijing's wide avenues and underpasses that stretch across eight lanes of traffic don't allow pedestrians to get anywhere in a hurry. The city's subway system is overwhelmed with passengers, there are long walks between lines and its stations don't always link up with bus stops.
"Public transport should really have been prioritized but we need to understand that if you want to build up a new public transport system then you have to plan and design the city the right way," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.
China should learn from cities like New York and Hong Kong, he said.
Gao, the subway driver, can't think of anyone he knows who doesn't have a car. He and his wife, who sells subway tickets, worry about the health of their 1-year-old in the worsening pollution.
"My dream is simple," he says. "To live in a warm apartment, drive a car I like and have a healthy child."
AP researchers Fu Ting in Shanghai and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.