Traffic Jams Prevail on Car-Free Day
   2011-09-23 18:06:22      Web Editor: Guo

By Tom McGregor

The concept of a car-free day sounds heartwarming, especially in China, which is faces worsening pollution problems. A car-free day should have spurred a significant reduction of vehicular traffic. It should have been a day to unite environmentalists and drivers, annoyed with traffic jams. Unfortunately, this intriguing idea and its implementation failed to go hand-in-hand as expected.
According to China Daily, "traffic congestion in major Chinese cities showed little signs of easing during morning rush hours on Thursday, as more than 142 Chinese cities marked the country's fifth Car-Free Day."

The only recognizable difference in Beijing occurred on roads near the National Stadium, commonly known as the Bird's Nest, in the northern part of the city, where the municipal government banned private vehicles for the day.

So what happened? Why did so few Chinese drivers participate in the well-intentioned program? Perhaps this was because only a few of them knew about car-free day before Thursday. If drivers were aware of it, they were definitely not inspired to participate.

Announcing a car-free day is no longer sufficient to inspire the Chinese to abandon their vehicles even if just for one day. As China's economy develops, the domestic car market is flourishing despite increasing pollution, longer traffic jams and additional transportation costs. The new Chinese dream is for ordinary citizens to buy a home and a car for their families.

The Chinese media should have done more in advance of car-free day. Many reporters failed to mention the vehicular holiday until Thursday when it was already too late for drivers to plan ahead and find alternative means of transportation.

Meanwhile, many Chinese have a better understanding of pollution and hope for a cleaner environment, but not at the expense of sacrificing their cars. Gas prices in China are relatively low, and public transportation does not stand out as an attractive alternative for many. Subways and buses are often overcrowded and uncomfortable.

Even though cycling is a good form of exercise, as a regular mode of transportation it may not be suitable for many; cyclists struggle to ride in inclement weather, on both cold and hot days. Cyclists also suffer more as a result of collisions with motor vehicles. The construction of more bicycle lanes would ultimately reduce the size of car lanes and add to the problem of traffic congestion.

Beijing's downtown already maintains some of the world's widest streets, but to no avail. They are typically clogged during rush hours, with almost 5 million vehicles registered in the city. Nevertheless, Beijingers appear to be more tolerant towards tougher regulations regarding vehicle registrations.

Zhao Hong, director of the economic institute of the Beijing Academy of Social Science, told China Daily that "rising incomes, plummeting car prices and urban expansion have made it possible and at times necessary for a large number of Beijingers to purchase a vehicle."
Auto shows across China are growing in popularity. Presently, the ongoing Chengdu Auto Show 2011 in the capital city of Sichuan province, has attracted many car enthusiasts and buyers. During the first four days of the nine-day event, more than 4,609 cars were sold. The highly anticipated event will end this Sunday.

Lu Fouhai, a white collar employee in Chengdu, expressed prevailing local sentiments when he said, "it is more convenient to have a car anyway. I'd better buy one early." He fears that Chengdu will soon follow Beijing and other municipalities on restricting car license registrations.

The government's strategy of reducing the amount of vehicle registration in the capital has sparked unintended consequences. When residents of 2nd and 3rd tier cities learned of Beijing's car quota, they began to worry that the program would soon spread to their cities. Consequently, many have rushed to auto shows and car dealers to buy a car even if they really didn't need a car in the first place. Many have made purchases under the assumption that they might need it later.

Although China's car-free day could best be described as 'ineffective', some local Guangzhou officials deserve credit for making sacrifices without enforcing draconian measures on the locals.
"In Guangzhou, rather than impose restrictions on private car use, the government limited 90 percent of government vehicles from being driven on Thursday," as reported by China Daily.

Let's face it, being 'green' isn't easy. When you ask people if they want cleaner air, anyone of sound mind will answer "yes." But when you ask drivers: Would you stop driving to improve air quality, not many will say "yes" in all sincerity.

However, some believe that the United States transformed into a rich and powerful nation due to an American love for cars. As the Chinese enjoy more prosperity, they deserve the right to buy cars for their convenience, too.

In contemporary times, cars play an important role in China, but more vehicles mean more traffic and pollution. Yet, restricting people from purchasing vehicles is not the solution either. A more appropriate method would be to manufacture more environmentally-friendly vehicles to improve air quality. Building more roads would also be helpful too.


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