BEIJING, Dec. 21 -- You can't miss them. They're everywhere. And as of this past weekend, there are more than 4 million of them on Beijing roads.
It's enough to literally drive commuters crazy. And not forget about the environmental impact.
Yes, automobiles are more popular than ever in China, particularly in major cities. And the numbers in Beijing have exploded in the past decade.
A city once known as the kingdom of bicycles, Beijing did not see many cars on the streets for decades, dating back to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
It wasn't until 1997 that the number of vehicles finally reached 1 million.
Then it took five years to hit the 2-million mark in 2003 - two years after China's accession to the World Trade Organization. Four years later, it hit 3 million. Now, after just two short years, the number has breached 4 million.
Chen Yao, a senior researcher of industrial layout and regional economy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, noted that if the number of automobiles keeps growing by more than 1,000 per day, it will take just five years for the total to swell to 8 million, as many as in today's Tokyo and New York City.
"If the government does not plan in advance, the traffic in Beijing will be clogged and people will come to blows, face to face," he said.
By 1994, the 2nd Ring Road was the border of downtown and "suburban" Beijing. In the next decade and a half, the city built the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th ring roads.
As of the end of the 2007, according to official statistics, the road total reached 4,460 ki-lometers in Beijing - about 2.5 times that seen in 1978.
And the city now plans to add 280 km to the express road network in the next five years, the Xinhua News Agency has reported.
However, Liu Tongliang, director of the Beijing Municipal Transportation Administration Bureau, said that merely expanding the distance of roads won't meet increasing traffic requirements.
"Giving priority to public transport is an inevitable choice for Beijing's development in the long term," Liu told the Beijing News on Friday.
More than 800 new bus lines in Beijing have been put into use in the two-year period from the beginning of 2008 until today. And that expansion has come after Beijingers were given a bus-fare cut from 1 yuan to 0.40 yuan in 2007 with a traffic card, while other major cities charged at least 1-2 yuan.
Besides the six existing subway lines, 13 new lines are under construction as of this year. By 2015, the city's subway lines will stretch 561 kilometers.
Worsening traffic snarls have prompted the local government to attempt other moves to ease the congestion, such as allowing only some vehicles on the roads, depending on the day of the week.
Ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games last year, with the number of vehicles at more than 3.5 million and smog a major problem, local authorities banned vehicles with even-and odd-numbered license plates on alternate days from July 20 to September 20. Officials said the effort resulted in as many as 2 million fewer cars on the road daily.
The current five-day traffic restrictions were introduced April 11 of this year, and authorities say the move keeps nearly 22 percent of cars off the roads each weekday.
However, experts say the effect is offset by the surging influx of new cars in the city, as more than 3 million vehicles are still allowed on the roads daily - the same level as in 2007 before the restrictions.
The paper quoted Deputy Mayor Huang Wei as saying that a policy to curb the growth of automobile numbers won't be made until "an appropriate time" in the future.
Huang also said Beijing won't charge a congestion tax in the foreseeable future.
Instead, city officials will focus on expanding the public transport system, such as bus and railway lines, to deal with the traffic problem, he said.
"DRIVING CULTURE" TO BLAME
The latest data from the traffic management bureau shows that in the three months from August, 213,000 dunk-driving incidents resulted in 32,000 crashes, with 600 people killed.
Additionally, in 2008, 45 percent of traffic casualties were caused by speeding and drunk driving.
Reining in lawbreakers has also been a headache for local police, who are dwarfed by the number of vehicles on the road.
Gao Feng, an official with the Haidian Traffic Squad, noted, "With 6,000 traffic police currently in force, there is a huge shortage of manpower to handle the traffic."
People from other countries, even from those notorious for traffic problems, have been surprised by the traffic in Beijing.
"Driving in London is a headache, but driving in Beijing is a nightmare," said George Cuzzocrea, a British expatriate who has been driving in Beijing for four years.
"Drivers don't follow the rules. Even the traffic police cars don't follow them. No one seems to give consideration to other drivers," he said.
Peter Davis, an American in Beijing, said China is essentially a nation of "teenage" drivers - many of whom went straight from bicycles to automobiles and are the first in their families to drive.
Liang Wei, a former staff member with the Beijing Municipal Roadway Administration Bureau, told the Global Times that a deep-rooted bureaucratic culture in China has also contributed to the rising number of cars on the road and poor traffic.
Military and State government cars often defy the municipal traffic rules, reports have said.
Other experts said it's not a matter of how many cars the city has now, it's whether people abide by the traffic laws.
"Four million is not a big number compared with other metropolises such as Tokyo and New York City where traffic is much better," said Niu Fengrui, director of the Urban Development Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The best solution, he said, is to upgrade road design and traffic-management expertise, and be more strict in enforcing the rules of the road. A public education course to teach the drivers how to follow those rules and respect each other is also necessary, he said.
(Source: Global Times)