It’s every driver’s worst nightmare: tens of thousands of vehicles clogged a 62-mile stretch of highway between Beijing and Jining city, creating a perpetual traffic jam, now entering its 11th day. While state television network CCTV says the traffic is breaking up, other officials say the congestion could last for several more weeks, becoming “a symbol of the dark side of China’s love affair with the automobile,” according to The Wall Street Journal.The August gridlock on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway (a.k.a. Highway 110) is only the latest installment in a series of traffic problems that have plagued Beijing drivers. This summer, Chinese motorists have encountered an unprecedented amount of traffic jams, raising questions about the effectiveness of the Chinese national road system and the future of automobile transit.
THE REAL CULPRIT
The source of the bottleneck stems from an ongoing road-improvement project that is part of an ambitious national plan aimed at expanding the capacity of Chinese roadways in an effort to accommodate the needs of an ever-growing population. The real culprit, The Christian Science Monitor says, is coal.
China relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs. For years, small illegal coal mines in the province of Shanxi provided Beijing and its surroundings with a good deal of coal but so many of the mines would collapse or explode, and so many miners would die, (over 1,600 nationwide last year according to official figures) that the local authorities have closed most of them down.
That’s all very well, but China being China, the province of Inner Mongolia, to the North of Shanxi, has taken up the slack. And an awful lot of the trucks currently snarled on the G110 expressway to Beijing are carrying coal mined illegally in Inner Mongolia. They are taking the G110, drivers explained to the daily Beijing News, because there are no coal checkpoints on that highway, so they don’t have to bribe any inspectors to turn a blind eye to their illegal loads.
There are plans to expand rail capacity between Inner Mongolia’s coal country and China’s port cities, which will hopefully alleviate on-road congestion tied to the illegal coal trade. But the more important issue to consider is how to reduce China’s demand for coal to begin with.
Meanwhile, it hasn’t been stop-and-go for all parties involved. Local merchants have flooded the area, setting up shop to sell goods and services to frustrated drivers who officials believe may be asking “Are we there yet?” until mid-September, when road construction is projected to end.
The ever-growing jam has significant implications for the future of Chinese transportation. Will the incident be the catalyst China needs to re-think transportation infrastructure and car ownership? Or should Chinese citizens begin to prepare for perpetual road rage?