Our Scariest Chinese Risk – Gridlock in the Chinese Capital

Scariest Risks

Scariest Risks
That the traffic in the capital of the world’s most populous nation is a nightmare is well-known to its inhabitants, and it is often ranked as the worst city in the world for traffic congestion.

That the traffic in the capital of the world’s most populous nation is a nightmare is well-known to its inhabitants, and it is often ranked as the worst city in the world for traffic congestion.

Imagine: you’re on your way to an important client meeting, where a late arrival will be fatal to your chances of business success; your daughter has suspected appendicitis and needs to get to a hospital fast; you’re in a taxi on your way home after having a few beers with some friends and are starting to long for a restroom…but you’re gridlocked in Beijing.

Part of the problem is that Beijing’s 20 million people are still in love with the idea of owning their own vehicle, as well as being reluctant to embrace the rigours of the over-crowded (albeit very cheap) public transport system.   Over the last 10 years car ownership has been rising rapidly.

Four Wheels Better Than Two?

It wasn’t always like this. In the early 1980s private cars were unheard of.  Back then, the beautiful Chang’An Avenue that cuts an elegant 61 km (38-mile) East-West swathe through the centre of the city was largely empty of cars, but bordered by gently-moving streams of bicycles.  The wide traffic lanes were dominated by ponderous articulated buses that nonetheless ferried their occupants smoothly around the capital.   Now, just as some major UK cities, including London, are recording that more people travel to work by bicycle than by car, China has gone in the opposite direction.

Although the capital has recently started restricting new vehicle registrations to 20,000 per month, the demand for the license plates is around 50 times that level.  And even if the number can be effectively limited (some owners register their vehicles in neighbouring provinces instead), that additional quarter of a million vehicles annually is going to ensure Beijing’s streets become more choked than ever.

The Pollution Problem

It’s no longer just a matter of inconvenience to the citizens of Beijing, but a real environmental and health risk scenario, which is steadily growing.  Over the last year, The iPad China Air Quality app tells me that over the last year,  of the 120 Chinese cities listed, Beijing ranks as 6th worst, vying for top (bottom?) position with large industrial cities in the highly-polluted  North-West.   (Shanghai, with a larger population but much smaller per capita car ownership, ranks at number 95, although we’re also by the sea here, of course, which helps).  The health effects of ozone and small particle matter, known as PM2.5, in Beijing’s air and other pollution caused by motor exhaust fumes will take an increasing toll on the city’s inhabitants and its finances in the years to come, whilst the indirect effects of stress, lower work productivity and reduced quality of life should also not be underestimated.

The Government has this issue clearly in its sights and is continuing to invest in subway construction, but the conflicting interests are manifold. Not least in the desire to support China’s motor industry and the wish not to frustrate the material aspirations of China’s rapidly growing and influential middle class.

Oh, and with the start of the National Congress of the Communist Party on 8th November, for roughly two weeks a number of traffic lanes on major routes to and from the People’s Hall will be restricted exclusively to Congress delegates’ vehicles.  This will only worsen the situation for the long-suffering Beijing commuters sitting in their cars on Chang’An Avenue and its clogged arteries.  If you’re not a delegate, good luck with getting to that meeting, hospital or rest room in time!


A shorter version of this post was part of the special feature about Our Scariest Risks, published October 29, 2012. The feature also included these other risks:

About Tim Mathieson

Tim, Chief Operating Officer of Willis China, is a graduate in Chinese studies with more than 30 years’ experienc…
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