A 60-mile traffic jam near the Chinese capital could last until mid-September, officials say. Traffic has been snarled along the outskirts of Beijing and is stretching toward the border of Inner Mongolia ever since roadwork on the Beijing-Tibet Highway started Aug. 13. The following week, parts of a major road circling Beijing were closed, further tightening overburdened roadways.As the jam on the highway, also known as National Highway 110, passed the 10-day mark Tuesday, local authorities dispatched hundreds of police to keep order and to reroute cars and trucks carrying essential supplies, such as food or flammables, around the main bottleneck. There, vehicles were inching along little more than a third of a mile a day. Zhang Minghai, director of Zhangjiakou city’s Traffic Management Bureau general office, said in a telephone interview he didn’t expect the situation to return to normal until around Sept. 17 when road construction is scheduled to be finished and traffic lanes will open up.
Villagers along Highway 110 took advantage of the jam, selling drivers packets of instant noodles from roadside stands and, when traffic was at a standstill, moving between trucks and cars to hawk their wares.
Truck drivers, when they weren’t complaining about the vendors overcharging for the food, kept busy playing card games. Their trucks, for the most part, are basic, blue-colored vehicles with no features added to help pamper drivers through long hauls.
Truck driver Long Jie said his usual trip from the coal boomtown of Baotou in Inner Mongolia to Beijing, which normally takes three days, was now taking him a week or more. The delay, he said, meant he would have to raise his rates above the usual 12,000 yuan, about $1,765, for a 30-ton truck full of cargo.
.Sounding frazzled and tired, Mr. Long, a driver for Baotou Zengcai Shipping Co., said in a telephone interview that the traffic got a little better once he finally made it off the highway.
Though triggered by construction, the root cause for the congestion is chronic overcrowding on key national arteries. Automobile sales in China whizzed past the U.S. for the first time last year, as Chinese bought 13.6 million vehicles, compared with 9.4 million vehicles in 2008. China is racing to build new roads to ease the congestion, but that very construction is making traffic problems worse-at least temporarily.
China’s roads suffer from extra wear and tear from illegally overloaded trucks, especially along key coal routes. Coal supplies move from Mongolia through the outskirts of the capital on their way to factories. There are few rail lines to handle the extra load. Though the current massive gridlock is unusual, thousands of trucks line up along the main thoroughfares into Beijing even on the best days.
Beijing is particularly prone to traffic jams because it is a bottleneck point. Drivers from the northwest have to navigate its rings of concentric circular highways to get to coastal ports or to head south. The sixth-ring road is the biggest, and until a new beltway is finished in the next few years, there is no alternative route around the capital.
Also entering the mix is the swell of passenger cars into the city from residents who have had to move farther from the capital to find affordable homes.
Other cities around the world face similar congestion headaches. The worst are in developing countries where the sudden rise of a car-buying middle class outpaces highway construction-unlike in the U.S., which had decades to develop transportation infrastructure to keep up with auto buyers.
A recent study by IBM suggested some of the worst commutes are in Moscow, where drivers reported 2½-hour delays, on average, when asked about the worst traffic jam they faced in three years. Still, Beijing beat out Mexico City, Johannesburg, Moscow and New Delhi to take top spot in the International Business Machines Corp. survey of “commuter pain,” which is based on a measure of the economic and emotional toll of commuting.
The mega-jam on the city outskirts comes as officials warn that downtown traffic in Beijing is steadily worsening. State media on Tuesday reported that average driving speeds in the capital could drop below nine miles an hour if residents keep buying at current rates of 2,000 new cars a day.
At that pace, Beijing will have seven million vehicles by 2015, according to the head of the Beijing Transportation Research Center, and transportation will slow to what it was decades ago when China was known as the Bicycle Kingdom.
Beijing’s roads now have capacity to handle 6.7 million vehicles-and that is assuming current restrictions stay in place, such as the one requiring private cars to keep off the road for one day a week. Still, Beijing has half the number of cars of a comparably sized city, such as Tokyo.
The capital greatly expanded its bus lines and subway in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics, and work continues to open even more stations. But public transport remains crowded and many who can afford it prefer to drive cars.
Longer term, city planners are pinning their hopes on expanded mass transit, adding subway, light rail and mode dedicated bus lanes.