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Beijing's traffic nightmare and public transit

Samuel Staley's picture
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BEIJING--When I first learned that I wouldn't be able to rent a car in Beijing, I was disappointed. That's how I usually break away from the business "bubble" to learn something about a city. But, it didn't take more than an hour to realize that I was better off with a local driver than tackling it myself.  Driving habits, combined with roads choking with pedestrians, cars, buses, and taxis, convinced me I needed to leave the driving to a "pro".

Beijing is a teaming city of 16 million people, and 800,000 more arrive each year. And that's with an explicit policy of population control! Every new arrival needs a permit before he or she can relocate. The city's economy is in overdrive, not in small measure due to next year's Olympic games. All those people, all those jobs, and all that new wealth have created huge burdens for the transportation system.

Beijing's transportation system is going through many of the fits and starts of a growing economy--with wealth comes the desire to own a car. While the city has been adding lots of asphalt, its real focus is on boosting public transit. Right now, 30% of commuters use bus or rail. Almost 60% of the commuters use rail, even though the city only has three rail lines (two subway and one light rail). Another 15% drive cars. How do the others get there? Many walk, but many more use their bike.

The city expects to increase public transit's commuting share to 40% by 2010. But, based on the current mode split, this goal may be too ambitious. Most of those new public transit riders will have to come from bike riders. Car ownership is increasing quickly, not declining, despite the congestion. Walkers are still going to walk. The bus system already extends commutes to over an hour each way for most. That leaves the subway system. While new lines are being built in anticipation of the Olympic Games, I don't see much hope in convincing bicycle riders to give up their bikes for a fixed route transit system. Their bikes already give them a lot of auto-mobility, and they will be unlikely to give that up easily, particularly if their incomes put a car within reach.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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