As Chinese car sales speed up, traffic in Beijing slows down

BEIJING (AP) — It was a dubious record of sorts: Last week, it took taxi driver Liu Chunwang two hours to drive his passenger 4 miles (7 kilometers).

"I've never experienced a worse situation," said the 28-year-old Liu, who has been navigating the Chinese capital's roads for four years. "It was such a short distance but there was nothing I could do."

Traffic congestion is nothing new to this metropolis of more than 17 million people but, in recent months, the gridlock seems to be reaching new highs, as surging auto sales put more cars on Beijing's streets. A bout of heavy rain left the city virtually paralyzed recently, with more than 140 bottlenecks reported.

An average of 1,900 new cars has been sold every day this year, bringing the number of vehicles in Beijing to 4.5 million as of July. At the current rate, the Beijing Transportation Research Center estimates that car ownership will reach 7 million by 2015, which it says would bring average driving speeds in the city to a crawl of 9 miles (15 kilometers) per hour.

"As China's economy and the urbanization process developed rapidly, traffic jams in metropolitan areas were bound to happen," said Guo Jifu, head of the research center, noting that Beijing's population is growing by half a million people a year.

Beijing added 415,000 vehicles last year and is on track to add more than 600,000 this year — an amount equal to the total number of vehicles in Hong Kong, Guo said.

"In Beijing, the number of cars that families own, the growth rate of car ownership and the intensity of the usage of cars are all higher than those of foreign cities such as New York and Tokyo," he said. "When the traffic load reaches a certain level, a light disruption like an accident could destabilize the system and amplify the disruptive effect."

The city is currently in the midst of one disruption with another one coming up: the three-day Mid-Autumn festival began on Wednesday, and it will be followed by the weeklong National Day holiday starting Oct. 1.

The warnings were dire ahead of this week's holiday: Traffic police said roads would be clogged for at least seven hours, starting at 3 p.m. Then came word that rush hour had begun at 1 p.m. as motorists left work early to get a jump on the traffic.

China's traffic woes came to international attention last month with a monster traffic jam that lasted 10 days and extended along a major highway for 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the outskirts of Beijing.

Triggered by road construction and a flurry of coal deliveries from mines in the northwest, the snarl-up was so bad that truck drivers passed the time playing cards and sleeping on the asphalt beside their vehicles.

This year, Beijing tied with Mexico City for the world's most painful commute, according to a global commuter survey released this summer. The study, conducted by IBM, surveyed 8,200 motorists from 20 cities.

Ninety-five percent of Beijing respondents said traffic had negatively affected their health, while 84 percent said it had a negative impact on their work or school performance.

To ease gridlock, Beijing authorities imposed restrictions on car traffic before the 2008 Olympic Games, allowing vehicles with odd and even-number plates into the city on alternate days. Now, all cars are banned from the streets one day a week, based on their license plate numbers.

But an emerging Chinese middle class has sought to evade the rule by buying a second vehicle. About one-fifth of new sales are for a second car, the government says.

Li Bingren, an economist with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, attributed the worsening congestion to the rapid development of the auto industry and the desire of more and more people to own cars.

However, he said, city officials are expanding and promoting public transportation, with an estimated 5 million people using the subway. "One of the major actions we have taken to improve the traffic situation in Beijing is to stimulate the development of the metro," he said.

But even commuting by public transport can be a losing battle.

"The traffic in Beijing is just getting more and more horrible," said office worker Kong Minni, who said she tries to take public transportation when possible. Her airport shuttle bus ride last week, normally a 30-minute journey, took more than two hours. "All vehicles were just stuck on the road and our bus barely moved," she said.

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Associated Press researchers Xi Yue and Yu Bing contributed to this report.