Beijing: From bicycle town to car city in 40 years

World Today

The average driver in Beijing sits in traffic for a staggering 268 hours each year. Progress has brought congestion, and with it, pollution. But the city is working to clean up its roads and air, as CGTN’s Sean Callebs reports.

When broad reforms began 40 years ago, China was a nation driven by pedal power.

Back then, fewer than one-in-five people in China lived in urban areas and bikes were all they needed.

But spokes and handlebars have given way to exhaust pipes and steering wheels.

Progress can bring headaches; just ask 29-year-old Zhang Yipeng. He sits in traffic, staring at brake lights, for more than an hour each day on his 10 kilometer commute to work.

“Oh, it’s terrible!” he said. “Too many cars, always.”

Beijing is a historic city with a recorded history dating back some 3,000 years. But for all its celebrated past, Beijing was not designed for 22,000,000 people – or over 5,000,000 cars.

“You have a box, and it only holds so much, and once it gets beyond that – then you start to have problems,” explained Einar Tangen, an economic development specialist. “This is just a symptom of success. Everyone wanted to be in Beijing.”

As the future races by, China is working to alleviate its nightmarish traffic jams and the ills it brings.

Part of that is the development of so-called “cluster cities” which will help keep the workforce closer to their jobs and people spending less time sitting in traffic.

Change is coming – fueled by something the experts call “China speed”. ”

“It is something where they say, we are just going to get this done,” Tangen explained. “We have the tools to do it and we will take care of everything as we go along.”

For example, all car makers in China – domestic and foreign – must turn out a certain number of electric and hybrid vehicles every year. One look at the notorious air pollution explains why.

Tangen, who worked for years on development in the U.S., said for decades, Americans have tried but failed to get drivers to “go green”.

“You are a cheerleader and you go out there and say “this is the vision for the future. Follow me,” Tangen said. “In China they say, “this is the vision for the future, here is the plan and the timetable, and this is when it’s going to be done.”

It’s coming, but that’s down the road. First, China must win over people like Zhang Yipeng.

“A new energy car is not ideal for me right now compared to a gasoline-powered car,” he added. “Gas vehicles have better power and are more stylish.”

Sitting in traffic, it’s hard to believe China has more than 130,000 kilometers of highways. That’s more than anywhere else on earth, and enough to circle the globe more than three times. While many experts believe eventually China will have the first city that is all-electric, or driverless, the reality is this is a nation that must now rely on patience.