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The mother of all traffic jams

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On the road

The mother of all traffic jams

Many of us have experienced being stuck for hours in a traffic jam or even worse, getting stranded overnight in the car due to impassable floods caused by typhoons or monsoon rains. But these ordeals are nothing compared to the mother of all traffic jams that stretched 100 kilometers and lasted 11 days on the Beijing-Tibet highway in China last year, capturing the attention of the international media.

From August 14 to August 25, 2010, thousands of cars and trucks—mostly cargo and coal trucks—were bumper to bumper on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Highway, crawling along at barely more than a kilometer or two a day after road works cut capacity on this main artery between the capital and Inner Mongolia, where large coal reserves have been discovered.

China is the world’s top producer and user of coal which has fueled its rapid economic growth over the past three decades. All trucks traveling through the region and transporting goods to and from the capital have to take this highway which is also known as the G110 National Expressway from Inner Mongolia to Beijing and the province of Heibei. The heavy loads damaged the highway, which is why repairs began on August 13 and were expected to continue into September.  To make the situation worse, parts of a major road circling Beijing were closed the following week.

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Enterprising

By August 18, enterprising villagers living near the highway to Beijing had set up stalls hawking water, packets of instant noodles and boxed lunches at bloated prices to the stranded drivers. Their price-gouging took advantage of a captive market. Many of the drivers passed the time by playing cards, sleeping or walking between vehicles.

Although the authorities sent hundreds of police officers to keep order and reroute cars and trucks carrying essential supplies such as food and flammables, some officials said the gridlock could last till September. But on August 25, MSNBC and the French news agency AFP reported that the monstrous traffic jam had virtually vanished overnight as local authorities had managed to disperse the congestion.  By the time MSNBC reporters reached the area, all they encountered were the garden-variety traffic jams here and there.

The 11-day traffic jam, although extreme, mirrors similar gridlocks that occur often and regularly, lasting anywhere between a few hours to a few days across the country. In fact, on September 2, 2010, CBS News.com and the AXA Car Insurance blog reported that a jaw-dropping 120-kilometer backlog involving about 10,000 coal trucks had built up on the same highway, transforming it into an enormous parking lot and blocking feeder roads. Traffic jams are so common that one which trapped freezing travelers for more than 12 hours last January on a snowbound highway in Guizhou province did not even merit a mention in the local news media.

At a public symposium last August, the head of the Beijing Transportation Research Center said that on the average in the first half of 2010, the number of cars on the road increased by 1,900 per day.  He said the number of vehicles in Beijing would total 7 million by 2015 if the growth rate continued, but the city’s road networks can only accommodate 6.7 million vehicles. Worsening air pollution is another big problem.

Commuter pain

No wonder a 2010 IBM study of 20 major cities found that Beijing, followed by Mexico City and Johannesburg, had the highest rate of “commuter pain” which is measured by 10 indexes that rate the emotional and economic tolls of commuting in each city. The study rates Beijing as the world’s most painful, unreliable and anger-inducing commute. According to Global Times, China averages 3.5 times more traffic-related deaths than the US.

In 2009, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest car market.  At the end of that year, China was home to 170 million vehicles and projections indicate that as many as 220 million new vehicles could be added by 2020.

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China is spending billions of dollars to build roads and railways across the country (their bullet trains are the most advanced in the world), but it is still struggling to reduce the frequency of traffic jams and to keep up with the demands of its booming economy.

Sources: The Globe and Mail, Christian Science Monitor, The Economist and IHT

Clarification

Last week, my byline was inadvertently and erroneously attached to a press release from Ziebart after I had forwarded it to the Motoring section as I always do when a press release is e-mailed to me.

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TAGS: aida sevilla Mendoza, Business, column, Motoring, traffic jams
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