|Looking out my 11th floor hotel window at the Fuchengman Dajie Freeway this dank Friday morning, it’s impossible to tell that half the privately owned cars in Beijing have been removed from the roadways. In a drastic step to dent Beijing’s legendary and exploding traffic crisis, government officials have banned up to 1.5 million cars from streets and freeways every day during the Olympic forte night. They’ve done it by restricting driving depending on whether your license plate ends in an even or odd number.
Sipping a bottle of water and watching the bumper-to-bumper traffic inch along the freeway far below, I can only imagine the road rage on a non-Olympic workday. Add to the mix thousands of bikes and scooters and it’s a commuter free-for-all that makes the 55 Freeway at rush hour look like an easy drive.
China has a crush on cars. It is fast becoming the ultimate status symbol for the rising middle class. China recently surpassed Japan as the second largest car market, after the U.S. Car culture has already transformed daily life, with wildly popular car clubs, “self-driving” vacations and drive-through eateries, not to mention traffic jams and eye-stinging smog in Beijing and other major cities. The number of privately owned cars in China is 11.5 million and more than 1,000 new cars are registered in Beijing every day. Moreover, 37 percent of the people driving in China today did not know how to drive 3 years ago. China began encouraging private car ownership in 1994 and the love affair with autos has bloomed ever since. By 2025, China is expected to have more cars than the U.S. though today this superpower has the same number of cars per capita as America did in 1915. But that will surely change. A price war has dropped the cost for new car by as much as $2,000 U.S. dollars. A small, four-car sedan costs about 122,000 RMB or Yuan (about $12,700). A bigger and by China standards more luxurious Subaru Forrester is priced at 350,000 Yuan or approximately $50,000.
“Everybody wants a car,” said Bill Chong, a 29-year-old university-educated tour guide. “It’s a status thing. Problem is no place to park it in the city. Once you get it, some people can’t afford to drive it.” Not only is parking a problem in Beijing but the cost of gas is about the same as the U.S., roughly $1 per liter or $4 per gallon. Moreover, if you own a car driving in this historic city is not for the faint of heart. It’s not so much the speed people drive (it’s nearly impossible to find a stretch a road in the central city where you get going more than 50 miles per hour). It’s the lack of apparent order on the roadways. Even after a week of traversing this city in all types of conditions and times of the day, its fruitless trying to figure out who has the right of way. It’s not pedestrians who seem to cross any street at any time no matter the signal or on coming traffic. It’s shocking we don’t see more accidents with the wheel-to-wheel jousting that goes on between drivers at nearly every intersection. When we cross the street we’ve learned to tuck ourselves in the middle of the pedestrian pack. We never walk on the outside or lead the way. It’s called a respect for life and limb.
The sobering bi-product of this lust for cars is air pollution. Call it fog, haze or just August, but the air quality in Beijing is unsettling. It reminds me of growing up in north Orange County in the late 1960s, where smog alerts were a way of life. During the past three decades, China’s GDP has averaged an astounding 10 percent per year as this country races to modernize and compete with the U.S. The demand for natural resources and energy to fuel this galloping growth has fostered an environmental crisis and air pollution is at the top of the offenses. Even the Chinese people have protested calling for more government regulation to curb emissions. In response, auto makers like Volkswagon and Audi are introducing hybrid autos into the Chinese market, including an entire Olympic fleet that is shuttling officials between venues.
For Beijiner’s like Bill Chong air pollution, congestion and other issues are part of the price to pay for an emerging China. “The environment is such a big issue. It’s hard to get our arms around it. We must do better, but it’s complex.” That is true for almost everything in this nation of sharp contrasts and driving ambitions.