Driving Upside Down
When I first visited Beijing in 2000, (during the Around the World in 80 Days classic car rally), there were only about 1.9 million private cars in the country-most of them in the capital. Bicycles were a major mode of transportation and cyclists were well served with special lanes and traffic lights. Hundreds would line up and surge forward as the lights changed, joined by tiny, two-stroke gasoline-powered three-wheel trucks and carts.
Taxis were plentiful, many of them locally made Golfs, thanks to VW chairman Carl Hahn's joint venture that opened the Chinese market in the mid-1980s. Imported European models were popular among government officials and the wealthy. With so few cars, traffic problems didn't come close to other major cities like London or Paris. As a foreigner driving a classic car, it was a fun place to visit. In 2007, I visited Beijing again as part of the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge. I came a week early and stayed near the airport. To go anywhere, I needed to hire a taxi and travel the city's infamous ring roads.
Beijing now has around three million cars, with 1200 new vehicles registered every day. Although the city has responded to this growth by expanding its road system, it isn't enough. Except for early morning or late night, traffic is bumper-to-bumper, with lots of fender-benders.
It's sobering to think that most drivers in Beijing are new to this, having only recently moved up from a bicycle. Concepts like mass and momentum don't seem to be taught in Chinese drivers' education. Beijing drivers have elevated horn use to an art form. A beep can tell another driver to go ahead, to warn a pedestrian you're approaching and won't stop, or to signal another driver to stay in their lane as you're not going to slow down to let them in. Turn signals are used frequently, but just because the driver in front signals a lane change, it doesn't mean he will.
Foreigners aren't allowed to rent cars, probably a good policy, as driving our pre-war classic car through city streets and Beijing's ring road was more cut-and-thrust than most seasoned inner-city American drivers are used to. Over 16,000 jams are reported every year.
Cyclists put their lives in jeopardy as drivers encroach into bike lanes, paying little attention to two-wheel traffic. As a result, bicycle use declined 25 percent between 2000 and 2005. Yet the new car market is hot, increasing 25.9 percent during the first half of 2007.
There was something charming about all those bikes lined up at the lights back in 2000. Charming and pollution-free. On a hot day, the air is so thick it can be difficult to see more than a city block. Go for a walk and the lack of oxygen makes it feel like breathing through a straw. Beijing and the rest of China have recently adopted strict automobile emission regulations, but it could take years before they have any noticeable effect.
The lack of bicycles is offset somewhat by new powered two-wheelers, using either a small electric motor or a 35cc single-cylinder gasoline engine. Ironically, because China gets 75 percent of its electricity from highly polluting coal-fired power plants, the total pollution created by an electric bicycle is higher than all the fumes from two-stroke motorcycles. Scooters, a favored alternative in Europe, are counted as motorcycles and require a hefty registration fee if they enter Beijing's inner city.
The Chinese do not consider their country as third-world, preferring European brands to cheaper Korean-made offerings. Audi, BMW, Citron, Peugeot, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and VW models are as commonplace as they are in any major European city-many made locally via joint ventures with Chinese companies. It's rare to see any customizing. Perhaps that will come as China's automotive industry matures. Right now, drivers seem happy just to have a car.
The Chinese government is working on fuel cells, biofuels, and hydrogen-fueled vehicles. A decade ago, it had an opportunity to avoid the problems produced by millions of automobiles in an urban area. That time has passed, with the powers-that-be more interested in modernization than rational growth. Beijing and its 15 million residents now face the same predicament as every other major city.
Beijing is also hosting the 2008 Olympics. To gauge the effect on air pollution, private vehicle use was prohibited within the city for two weeks in August of this year, and will likely be prohibited before and during the event (it's hard to imagine American drivers accepting such draconian edicts). Older taxis are being replaced with new vehicles and cabbies are trying to learn some English. Maybe, for those few weeks, Beijing can turn its calendar back by seven years, before the automobile turned it upside down.