A Great Wall of Cars: Surviving China's 'Carmageddon'
Image Credit: Joshua Drew Vaughn (flickr)

A Great Wall of Cars: Surviving China's 'Carmageddon'


Last week was supposed to be the start of a relaxing vacation for hundreds of millions of Chinese. Yet traffic at the start of “Golden Week,” the National Day holiday, proved to be anything but.

Road congestion ranked amongst the worst ever witnessed in Beijing and other major cities, the latest evidence that China is struggling to manage what is the fastest rise in vehicle numbers of any country in history.

Many Chinese blamed traffic jams on a policy that saw expressway tolls suspended. Authorities said the move was designed to reduce traveling costs and speed up the passage of cars through toll barriers during the holiday period.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The result though was a great wall of cars filled with sightseers traveling from the poor provinces around the capital. Beijing’s transport commission estimated that 1.55 million vehicles would travel on the capital’s roads every day during the holiday’s season, more than double compared to the popular vacation season a year ago.

Chinese press reported impromptu games of tennis beside snarled traffic. And with everyone heading in the same direction, the congestion continued long after travelers had escaped their vehicles.

“We saw absolutely nothing but peoples’ heads,” Guo Zhijun, a 42-year-old from Henan Province, was quoted as saying in the State-run China Daily following a family trip to Beijing’s Forbidden City.

While debate in the Chinese press and on micro-blogging sites such as Weibo focused on the merits – or lack thereof– of suspending road tolls during the holiday, this has only served to distract from China’s mounting, longer-term traffic time bomb.

In the first survey of its kind assessing 20 of the world’s most economically important cities in 2010, IBM ranked Beijing the most painful commute on the planet. Although IBM marked a slight improvement in 2011, when Beijing was tied as the second most painful commute (with Mexico City the worse), the fact that Beijing shared this distinction with another Chinese city, Shenzhen, was a strong reminder that China is struggling to manage the number of vehicles on its roads.

In February of this year, there were five million cars registered in Beijing alone; with government officials expecting the number to rise to six million by 2016.

The government’s main tactic in a bid to stem the tide of upwardly mobile Chinese buying new vehicles has been license-plate lotteries limiting the supply of newly registered cars to just 20,000 per month in a handful of China’s busiest cities.

Since the scheme was introduced in Beijing at the start of last year, car sales have dropped by more than half, slowing the number of new vehicles on the capital’s roads, but creating new problems.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief