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China's Auto Mania

World Carfree Day in Beijing? Are you kidding?

Luke T. Johnson 10 Oct

Luke T. Johnson is a journalist, formerly based in Vancouver, now in China.

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Rush hour in Beijing.

Beijing and the rest of China are still in the honeymoon phase of their love affair with the automobile. Their passion for cars is raw and uninhibited, a wide-eyed obsession similar to the North American lust for the open road.

Last year, more than 7.2 million vehicles were sold in China, a 25 per cent increase from the year before and more than twice as many as were sold in 2002, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

As journalist Ted Conover has noted, China's newfound love of cars blossomed from the repression of the Cultural Revolution.

After the Communists came to power in 1949, Conover explained, all personal automobiles were seized, presumably because they symbolized a lifestyle out of step with Communist ideals. Once auto-ownership was allowed again in the 1990s, the Chinese felt a need to catch up on what they had missed out on for so many decades. The freedom, the personal expression of wealth and success, all that cars have come to symbolize in capitalist societies was ferociously embraced by a population eager to cash in on its booming economy.

And they continue to cash in. Those 7.2 million cars sold in China last year? The number is expected to reach 9 million this year. Things like car clubs and "self-driving trips" are exploding in popularity across the country and Formula One racing is one of the fastest-growing sports. Chinese car culture is in full swing.

Bicyclists beware!

In Beijing alone, about 1,000 new cars (and about 500 used ones) are added to the road each day -- bad news for a city already known as one of the most congested in the world and trying desperately to tidy its skies before the Olympics next summer. To travel its crowded streets is an exercise in controlled chaos.

Traffic lights are treated as mere suggestions and lane lines are all but ignored. Drivers seem to believe they can do just about anything as long as they honk their horns, and no one shies away from swerving into oncoming traffic to pass a slower vehicle. Many sidewalks are packed with parked cars and highway shoulders are commonly treated as proper lanes. And I've never once seen a driver in Beijing check his blind spot or think twice about turning right on a red light, irrespective of pedestrian proximity.

China used to be the kingdom of bicycles. Now, as more and more cars crowd the streets, the bikers are getting squeezed out. Many of the main drags have generous lanes for bikers, but cyclists increasingly have to share the road with pedestrians, some renegade taxis and the occasional donkey-drawn watermelon cart. Driving conditions keep getting more hectic and gridlocked because no driver is prepared to concede his claim to the road to some peasant biker.

'Carfree Day' in China

Last month I was heading west in a bus on Beijing's Fourth Ring Road. We had a boat to catch on the other side of town and had given ourselves about an hour to get there -- more than enough time, we thought. Two hours later we reached the dock, having spent most of our time smothered in the city's gridlock.

On any other day this delay would have been ignored with a shrug, chalked up as another chapter in the many tales of Beijing's endless traffic jams. But this day was supposed to be different: this was World Carfree Day.

World Carfree Day began in 2000 as an effort to raise awareness about our "car-dominated society" and to envision a cleaner, less motorized world. In the tradition of such symbolic days of informal boycott as Buy Nothing Day, World Carfree Day attracts mild media attention and usually comes and goes with few people taking notice aside from select members of the granola crowd and maybe the local bicycle club.

This year's event had all the makings of a smashing success. For the first time ever, China, the world's second-biggest consumer of cars, would be joining the world and freeing itself of cars. Media all over the mainland promoted this "significant day," boasting of the 108 Chinese cities slated to take part.

On the surface, Carfree Day seemed like it might just take off in China. After all, when Beijing successfully banned around a million cars a day from its streets for four days in August, trying to clean up for the Olympics, the gridlock ceased and air quality improved substantially. But as opposed to the government-mandated crackdown in the summer, the fall "ban" was voluntary. And with only two stretches of road in the entire city blocked off during Carfree Day, each measuring about 250 yards, motorists had little incentive to leave their cars at home.

As I learned, idling in the congestion on September 22, Carfree Day in Beijing was a bust. Most of the rest of the country seems to have acted with similar apathy, though there was one report of a couple from the northeastern province of Liaoning who walked for half an hour to their wedding ceremony to the respectful applause of onlookers. But city-folk, it seems, have little time for such novelties.

Gridlock, pollution and progress

Beijingers seem to understand that there is an excess of cars on the road, but few seem all that concerned about it. One young driver I spoke to laughed and shrugged his shoulders when I commented on the many cars (duo che) on the road. In broken English, he said that's why he prefers to ride his motorbike around town and keep his shiny new Volkswagen Golf at home.

The headache of gridlock, of course, is only part of the larger problem of China's car fetish. The country is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world's biggest polluter any day now and its unquenchable thirst for oil will only accelerate that process.

To be fair, the vast majority of cars on the road are small- to mid-sized sedans and China's fuel-efficiency standards are supposedly pretty strong. But it's not uncommon to see Hummers and other gas-guzzling monstrosities rolling down the avenues. In fact, in the first eight months of this year, almost 220,000 SUVs were sold, an increase of 50 per cent compared to a year earlier. At the same time, sales of super-efficient "micro cars" are sputtering despite government incentives for people to buy them. Many Chinese consumers believe they would "lose face" if they were seen driving such tiny vehicles.

Nor has the Chinese government forced drivers to be overly concerned about conserving fuel. Ever worried about impeding its explosive economic growth, officials have declined to raise taxes on gasoline. Prices in Beijing hover somewhere between $1.50 and $1.80 a gallon, making it some of the cheapest in the world relative to the size of its economy.

New subway lines

To its credit, Beijing has made notable efforts to counter the city's gridlock and encourage the use of public transportation. The city's first north-south subway line opened this week (Oct. 7) with two more lines set to open before the Olympics next year. By 2020 Beijing hopes to have the largest subway system in the world. City officials have also agreed to cut subway fares by one third to entice riders. Compared to Shanghai, where officials have made some truly head scratching moves like outlawing carpools and eliminating bike lanes, this is real progress.*

On Oct. 22, 2007, two paragraphs were removed from the ending of this article. The author concluded he was mistaken in saying traffic thins in Beijing during rain storms.

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