The recent attention surrounding Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation‘s (SAIC) attempt to purchase British manufacturer MG Rover has brought the Chinese automotive industry to the international stage, even if Britain’s last remaining full-scale automotive production company deemed the £60m SAIC bid disappointing. Yet while the rest of the world is paying attention to China’s production, Shanghaiist has been contemplating a very different byproduct of Chinese automotive industry growth: traffic.
We see it every day on our way to work, a street scene replicated city-wide: white-collar execs hailing taxis on every street corner, muscling others out of the way for the comfort of air-conditioned interiors. Ten minutes later, that same cab is laying on the horn just 100 meters up the road, hoping that adding to the noise pollution might miraculously solve the gridlock. A public bus (without A/C) totters by like an over-blown can of sardines, packed to the gills with workers and students alike. People riding bicycles, motorcycles, and mopeds weave through cars like rats in a maze, ignoring traffic signals when it tickles their fancy. Privately-owned vehicles stop at their leisure to wait on a two-lane highway, creating kilometer-long bottlenecks to buy some steamed buns for breakfast.
Shanghai is facing a serious traffic problem. It is obvious to everyone who lives here, and it becomes readily apparent to those who visit. The only thing that remains unclear is what to do about it.
Certainly, the initial blame for failing to keep Shanghai roads relatively traffic-free lies squarely on the shoulders of city planners. How could things have gone so wrong? What led Shanghai, the Pearl of the Orient, to such a sad state of affairs? The New York Times reports:
The original blueprints for a major expansion of Shanghai’s road network, which was drawn up two decades ago, predicted Shanghai would pass the threshold of two million cars in 2020. In fact, that figure was reached last November …
Those initial projections were certainly miscalculations of immense proportions. But if initial blame is to be placed on city planners in the 1980s equipped with no means to predict Shanghai’s exponential growth in the 90s and early 20th Century, then blame for exacerbating the current traffic problem must be shifted to include Shanghai residents. Yang Dongyuan, a professor at the School of Transportation Engineering and vice president of Tongji University, notes:
Just one year after some roads [designed to relieve traffic congestion] were completed, they reached vehicle flow volumes that were forecast for 15 to 20 years from now.
In an age of increasing wealth and affluence, Shanghai residents have jumped at the chance for private transportation, skewing traffic projections at accelerated rates. Automobiles now account for
70 to 80 percent of Shanghai’s pollution. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
In response, the city is expanding its subway grid to add eight new lines to the original 3 by the time Expo arrives in 2010, hoping to encourage more commuters underground and off the roads. Whether this will ease the pressure on Shanghai streets is difficult to say. Train distribution remains a problem, as some subway lines suffer from chronic overcrowding while others consistently run at less than half-capacity, leading people to seek the predictability of the bumper-to-bumper world above.
Is there anything to be done? Shanghai residents cry out for government intervention, hoping that city planners can right the ship they initially plotted off-course. However, a problem of this magnitude has no patented 12-step program to put our city on the road to recovery. Despite the government’s best intentions, with private car ownership on the rise, Shanghai streets can’t help but continue to feel the squeeze. As long as Shanghai residents continue to choose the personal convenience of car ownership over the social responsibility of public transportation, Shanghaiist holds out little hope for complete gridlock recovery.
- Howard French’s critical analysis of Shanghai’s traffic problem.
- Chery Automotive, based in east China’s Anhui province, has announced plans with car importer Visionary Vehicles to offer five models in the U.S., ranging from a compact sedan to an SUV, starting in 2007.
- The first Chinese-produced cars to reach Europe arrive in Antwerp, Belgium.
- Drag racing on Shanghai’s elevated roads?