Beijing: a burgeoning car dependency

The BBC reports that a 62 mile long standstill on a motorway just north-west of Beijing has entered its tenth day.  Motorists on the road between Jining and Huai’an, including hundreds of trucks from the coal fields of Inner Mongolia, have spent the week playing chess and being fleeced by the entrepreneurial locals who are bringing them food and water.  The problem is roadworks.  (And bad drivers who keep crashing.)  It’s always the way.  Congestion is always caused by roadworks.

As China develops at frightening speeds, it is also incubating a car dependency as frightening as anything the west has to offer.  The picture shows Beijing’s second ring road in an unusually calm and free-flowing mood.  Confusingly, there is no first ring road — but there is a third, fourth, fifth and sixth, and they’re working on a seventh.  The second ring road was built in the 1980s on the old city moat, which surrounded the medieval old city, and which even as late as the 1980s still contained the major part of the city.  The closest analogous route in London is the inner ring, which surrounds the congestion charge zone.  Being so central, the 2RR has to cope with both through traffic and local traffic, and so it regularly takes vast segregated formations, as seen here at Dongzhimen — with several lanes of through motorway traffic plus more of local traffic, including cycle lanes.  There are actually additional lanes of slip road hidden behind the trees there.

At regular intervals through Beijing’s grid-pattened old town there are great boulevards of a Los Angeles style; three or four lanes of traffic in each direction, with countless brown and yellow striped taxis weaving through the packs of shining black Audis, Toyotas and Range Rovers.  These sprawling dual carriageways increasingly squeeze the traditional narrow “Hutong” streets, and even where the Hutongs are not bulldozed to make way for them, the Motorist, in an ever more desperate search for a gap in the traffic or a place to park, is taking over every inch of the city.

Beyond the old town, things are even worse.  Every building in the first photograph was constructed in the past decade, m’colleagues in Beijing told me.  On the right, they stand on the site of the old city walls and former low-rise residential Hutong.  On the left, all was fields fifteen years ago, they said.  Now the city sprawls for thirty miles and four more ring-roads to the left of the picture; through new prosperous business districts, grand hotels, dense tall housing estates and repetitive suburbia.  In the past five years alone, the estimated population of the city grew from 15 million to 22 million; that is, from twice the size of London to three times the size of London.  And in the same time, the city gained vast wealth, a hyperactive consumerist attitude, and the gaping rich-poor divide that accompanies those things.

And it is now discovering the car and a western Motorist society.  The city has about 5 million of them; growing in number by half a million per year.  Over the next couple of weeks the blog will look at the effects that Motorism is having on Beijing, and what people are doing about it.

France sends naval support for War On The Motorist

The scene at Tower Bridge during the evening rush hour, 6:25-6:50 this evening, a French Naval frigate arriving in the pool, to the faint notes of La Marseillaise blowing on the fresh sea breeze:

While not especially known for their military prowess, the French fought hard and brave, with an inspired strategy, sitting stationary downstream of the bridge for a good ten minutes after it opened, ensuring that the traffic was halted for the best part of a half hour at the height of the evening rush.  Word had leaked out in advance and assorted photographers and media gathered, while tourists and City workers flocked to the river to enjoy the evening sunlight and the show.  A flotilla of tourist river boats accompanied the French for their arrival, and open-top tourist buses accumulated on London Bridge.  It was a great street party; all the citizens came out onto the streets of London, happy, relieved, hopeful, excited by the developments.

And all the while that the French were dawdling up the river, a vast crowd of subversives quietly moved in for a parallel attack: while the bankers, drug dealers, and delivery vans (collectively, “the types of people who drive in London”) grew ever more irate over the money they were being forced to waste by burning petrol while going nowhere, just watching the queue ahead of them, the subversives were creeping past them with bicycles, cleverly building up a critical mass surrounding the Motorists.  So when the seamen finally pulled up alongside HMS Belfast, and the bridge decks had crept back into position, the poor white van drivers were still unable to go anywhere, as the cyclists held the bridge for the next five minutes.  (click thumbnails for full size images.)

The rumours are that the French will be playing the same hilarious military trick in reverse during the morning rush hour on Monday.  But for now: at ease, boys.  Mission accomplished.