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Beijing Wrestles with Urban Traffic Congestion

Directing cars and pedestrians through intersections in the Xidan Shopping District in downtown Beijing is an onerous job for traffic assistant Dong Sheng.

Whenever Dong Sheng stops the bumper-to-bumper stream of cars, passers-by hurry to cross. Sandwiched in between the cars, they cannot avoid inhaling exhaust fumes.

"On the weekend it gets even more crowded in shopping areas like this. Cars and pedestrians both want to be first, and no one yields an inch," said Dong Sheng who took the job last year.

More than 3,000 traffic assistants, many of whom are locals who have been laid off from their jobs, have been signed up by the Beijing traffic administration to remedy the shortage of traffic police and offset the inflexibility of traffic lights.

With the local economy being propelled by the "Olympic effect", observers warn that poor traffic conditions may be the biggest obstacle to a successful Games.

Dong Sheng is not the only one upset by the thorny traffic situation. Calling traffic management a "focal problem" of urban administration, Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan told Hong Kong media on Wednesday that his top priority was to "borrow experiences" in mass transmit management so as to alleviate traffic congestion in time for the 2008 Olympics.

A report from the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences says traffic jams cost the southern city up to 12 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) a year, about seven percent of its gross domestic product.

According to a survey, Beijing, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Yantai, Ningbo, Xi'an, Dalian, Foshan and Chongqing are the 10 Chinese cities with the worst traffic conditions.

Traffic congestion is an issue that increasingly industrialized China must confront. The situation may worsen as urbanization progresses, notes Lu Ming, professor of economics at Fudan University in Shanghai.

With China's sizzling economy maintaining double-digit growth, farmers are laying down their hoes and migrating to cities for better pay and opportunities. This further exacerbates the strain on public utilities and resources.

Beijing has more than three million migrant rural laborers among its 15 million permanent residents. The capital city is estimated to have 2.82 million cars, with more than 1,000 new ones hitting the streets every day.

Tan Xiaoxiong, an American teacher with New Oriental School, wrote in an article: "China does have traffic regulations, but you wouldn't know it when you're in the street... Some foreigners might get frightened when they see taxis and buses jockey for position."

According to some analysts, ignorance of traffic rules and a cavalier attitude to other people's rights are hallmarks of agricultural society where people are happy-go-lucky but undisciplined.

To remedy the situation, the Chinese government has channeled 2.23 trillion yuan (US$279.43 billion) into the construction and upgrading of transportation facilities over the past five years. Some 645 billion yuan was spent last year alone.

By 2010, Beijing will have upgraded two subway lines and built three new lines including a special subway leading to the Olympic village. A light-rail track will be laid to the airport while intervals between subway train services will be shortened to 150 seconds.

Apart from improving transportation infrastructure, the Chinese authorities are also trying to make breakthroughs in traffic management.

Since traffic often grinds to a halt when drivers involved in minor accidents start to wrangle over compensation, the Tianjin Municipality has urged people to immediately leave the accident scene if there is no severe damage.

Protracted bickering only results in traffic congestion and delays other people, the authority noted, threatening to impose punishments.

To eliminate the disgraceful scenes that occur after car accidents, analysts said China must establish a sounder car insurance system and traffic policemen must respond faster and more efficiently.

During the China-Africa summit earlier this month, a package of successful traffic control measures were taken by the Beijing Government, leading to smoother and better traffic.

"It was a joy to drive in the streets during the summit. It wasn't like Beijing at all," said taxi driver Zhao Lai.

The Beijing authorities prevented 800,000 vehicles from taking to the streets during the three-day event.

Li Xiangping, a researcher with Italy-based Fiat Research Center, said that mass traffic management is not rocket science.

"To get significant improvements, you have to change beliefs held by the government and ideas in the mind of the public. Awareness of other people's needs is crucial," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency November 17, 2006)

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