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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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March 15, 2008 6:18 AM

Higher, Faster, Stronger...Commuter?

Posted by Daniel Beekman

For years, China has poured money down Beijing's boulevards, flushed resources through Beijing's subways and cast about for legislation capable of solving Beijing's traffic problems.

Now shiny 'green' buses barrel down freshly paved streets and a new subway line cased in blue/white porcelain is nearly complete. But less than five months ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, the host city's thoroughfares remain jammed, its subway cars packed.

After losing ground for years, bicycles are suddenly back in fashion - try slipping between lanes in a clunky sedan.

"It takes me about an hour by bus to get from my home to work - I'm an interior decorator," said a young man buying fruit near Beijing's Third Ring Road.

"The bus is crowded and I wake up at 6am. The Olympics should help. 'A positive influence on our society' - that's what all the news programs say. I've heard that by 2010 a subway line will run by my home, in Daxing (District)."

In west Beijing's Gongzhufen subway station, a hurried high-school teacher slowed down to talk.

"I ride the subway something like 10 times a month," she said. "It's convenient - more so recently thanks to the Olympics. No traffic jams down here. I usually ride with my husband to work. He drives our car.

"But I prefer the subway. Take the subway and you won't be late. It's cheaper and safer too. Of course, the subway is very crowded - too crowded."

Following its successful bid for this summer's Games in 2001, Beijing launched an ambitious subway construction program. Seven years ago, the city's light-rail system consisted of just two lines.

A north-south line opened last year in east Beijing and three more will begin operation before August, including an 'Airport Line' and an 'Olympic Spur Line.' Work will begin on yet another new subway line next year.

"My morning commute is only ten minutes, by private car," said a Beijing CEO, who perused a high-end department store trailed by three eager underlings. "It takes me 40 minutes to get home. As the city has built new subway lines, rider-ship has increased.

"In theory, this should alleviate our traffic problems. But we're buying private cars even faster."

"Traffic on the Third Ring isn't getting better - it's getting worse," a young man said. "The city is developing rapidly. Too many people are buying cars. Waiting for the bus takes a long time, and you never know when yours will come. If I leave home for work after 8am, I often arrive late."

With the exception of the Olympic Spur Line, planners have calibrated recent improvements to Beijing's infrastructure for the future. When the subway expansion is done, lines will criss-cross most of the city.

Today, Beijingers hop subways and buses wielding the city's efficient yitongka swipe-card, introduced in 2006. To further promote public transportation ahead of the Games, Beijing cut ticket prices last summer, reducing bus fares to 4 Mao (5 US cents) and subway rides to 2 Yuan (25 US cents).

Beijing has also marched toward stricter fuel standards - requiring local gasoline and diesel retailers to meet the Euro II standard in 2002, the Euro III in 2005 and the Euro IV for 2008.

And since 1999, the city has deployed more than 1,900 buses running on compressed natural gas; at 4,000, Beijing's fleet is the largest of its kind in the world. Meanwhile, nearly 79,000 new low-emission taxis troll the capital for passengers.

Beijingers have in general applauded the city's late transportation initiatives. Any progress - just ask an I-405 or I-5 commuter - beats no progress at all.

"There are fewer people waiting at stops these days," a Beijing bus driver said. "The city has added more lines."

It would be wrong to claim, however, that Beijing's traffic has markedly improved. Try to cross town after 4pm on a weekday and you'll sit forever.

"It takes me two hours to get home from school," said a young woman who studies at Capital Normal University. "I take a bus, then the subway, then another bus. Rush hour is awful. And why? Beijing has too many people."

"Traffic on the Second Ring is deadly," a 65-year old grandfather groaned. "My son bought a car three years ago - he really loves to drive. But he got so tired of Beijing's traffic; he sold it back last year.

"My other son works at the airport, and rents an apartment out there. When the airport subway line opens he'll probably move back into the city. By car, it's an impossible commute."

Bankrolled by China's economic boom, moneyed Beijingers are pursuing 'the good life' - as prescribed by Hollywood America. 'One family, one child,' has given way to 'one family, one child, one car.'

Beijing has yet to impose heavy taxes on vehicle owners, as similarly challenged cities around the globe have done. But staggering gas prices haven't curbed car sales yet.

"It costs more to drive than to take a taxi everywhere, everyday," one Beijinger remarked.

In a city where dust storms buffet bus stops and subway patrons trample each other, Audi and Hyundai are synonymous with sanctuary. Last month, Reuters reported furor over a Beijing subway ad. The ad read: 'Squeezed in? Then go buy a car!'

"Private cars are clogging Beijing and ruining the environment," said a skinny young man. "Still, I'd buy one myself if I could afford it."

Sadly, there's no room in Beijing for another 3 million vehicles. Desperate to pull off an efficient Olympic Games, the city's leaders are resorting to clumsy, short-term tactics.

Like Sydney and Athens, hosts of the 2000 and 2004 Games, Beijing will rope off more than 280 kilometers of road for Olympic use. Beginning in July, certain cars will be banned from the city's streets entirely.

First, vehicles from some government departments and state-owned agencies will face restrictions. Then cars with even and odd-numbered license plates will alternate - one or the other banned every day.

During a test last August 17-20, 1.3 million vehicles were ordered off the road daily, reportedly reducing traffic by 30 percent.

Such measures could certainly transform Beijing into a drivable city for two weeks. Indeed, the traffic ban has become a hot conversation topic among Beijingers.

"One day odd, one day even - that's a great plan!" said a garbage man who lives by Beijing's Qinghua University. "Will the ban remain in place after the Olympics? That's hard to say."

"During the Games, the government will impose a whole bunch of restrictions," commented an aerospace engineer and Olympics volunteer. "Afterwards, traffic will return to normal."

"The government has tried hard to beat Beijing's traffic and pollution for the Olympics," the Capital Normal student said. "But it's very hard."

A high-school boarder exiting the subway at Gongzhufen was more cynical.

"The Olympics haven't changed my life or my weekend trips home," she said. "We write stuff about the Games on the blackboard, but it doesn't mean much. It's just propaganda."

Four elderly men ambled by, laughing together.

"The traffic is bad, sure," one chuckled. "But we walk everywhere. We're old and we're friends. We don't need to go far."


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