Olympic Beijing Strives to Ease Traffic Woes

It was anything but easy to travel around Beijing, a sprawling city with 3.36 million motor vehicles, but authorities are hoping to reverse the traffic woes -- at least for the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics.

Altogether 7,000 automobiles will be serving the Games in Beijing, according to the transport department of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the 29th Olympic Games (BOCOG).

While cars and buses carrying athletes, coaches and Olympic officials from across the world will run along exclusive lanes with no fear of congestion, accredited journalists, with just a show of their passes, enjoy free bus rides connecting all competition venues, official media hotels across Beijing, two media villages, the Main Press Center (MPC) and the International Broadcast Center (IBC).

Beijing Public Transport Holdings Ltd., a state company that runs more than 25,000 buses and 823 routes in the Chinese capital, has allocated nearly 900 air-conditioned buses to serve the Games reporters.

"More than 1,000 drivers are working on shifts to provide media transport services around the clock," said Shang Zhiquan, deputy coordination manager for media transport with the BOCOG.

All the drivers have stood out in written, road tests and interviews. "Among the basic requirements are five years of bus driving experience, zero record of road accident, and average age around 40," said Shang, also an executive with Beijing Public Transport Holdings Ltd.

The buses run on 63 routes, a network connecting two media villages, 42 media hotels, more than 30 competition venues in Beijing and the MPC and IBC near the Olympic Village.

The routes have been scrutinized and have to be followed strictly.

"No, you're not allowed to change route without authorization," Shang told a driver who suggested a seemingly better route from the MPC to a competition venue.

The driver, who declined to be named, said he could have shorten the travel time by switching to a route with fewer traffic lights. "Some passengers complained it took longer than expected."

The buses, all brand new and in good condition, normally drive at an average speed of 50 km per hour for safety considerations. The Second Ring Road in the city center allows a maximum speed of 80 km per hour.

"A group of British journalists told me the other night our services were 'very impressive' and better than other Olympic cities they had been to," said Shang.

In response to an influx of journalists traveling between the media village and the MPC/IBC in the morning and afternoon, transport coordinators have adjusted the schedules by cutting the intervals from 60 to 30 minutes in the peak hours from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

"The schedule is subject to further changes as of Aug. 1, when more journalists are expected to commute between the media village and the MPC/IBC," said Ren Xue, a BOCOG clerk in charge of transport coordination at the MPC.

Language assistance

Beijing has followed the Olympic norms to provide free media buses, and equipped the fleet with nearly 2,000 language assistants -- volunteers from 12 Beijing-based universities who are able to speak at least one foreign language: English.

The students, aged between 18 and 21, work as guides, interpreters as well as assistants to drivers and traffic police officers.

About 1,700 of them commute on the buses, doing interpretation for the drivers and fleet coordinators and answering journalists' questions. The rest help traffic police officers on the road -- pointing ways to bus drivers and pedestrians near the MPC/IBC.

Wei Donghui from south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region felt her job was "very important".

"Most people are new in this area, as you know," she said of the media buses' parking lot across the street from the IBC. "My job is to tell journalists where to catch their buses and show the bus drivers which lanes to take and where to park."

The engineering major from Beijing-based Communication University of China is new herself in this area -- she's in Beijing for a year but never visited the Olympic area before she became a volunteer. When no one at sight needs help, she would peruse a map in her hand trying to remember all the places.

"I'll be here until the end of August... no chance to go home this year," she said. "But it's worthwhile to do something for the Games -- and my parents said they were proud of me, too."

Making way for the Games

To avoid congestions over the Games, Beijing has sealed off a long fleet of government vehicles and halved the number of private cars on its roads by banning cars with odd-even numbers on alternate days.

Meanwhile, special lanes painted with the Olympic logo have been earmarked on key roads. The 285.7-km lanes will be reserved for Games vehicles until Sept. 20 and drivers of non-authorized vehicles will face a fine if they drive onto these lanes.

"Sometimes I really get impatient when I have to wait in long queues, unable to use the Olympic lane even if it's empty," said Chen Jianfei, a dentist in Beijing. "But generally speaking, the waiting time is shorter than before, as about half of the private cars have been taken off the roads."

Chen, who has a vehicle plate ending with an odd number, hitchhikes to work with a colleague on even number days. "We'd be happy to continue like this if the ban on odd-even numbers becomes permanent."

Li Jing, who lives close to the Olympic Village, complained her 15-minute drive to work at the Beijing Science and Technology University had been prolonged to an hour. "I have to make a detour on the outer ring -- the fourth or fifth ring. When I don't drive, I have to wait for at least 20 minutes to get on a bus."

Beijing transport authorities said the city had brought an additional 2,000 buses to the fleet, hoping to increase frequency and shorten the waiting time.

But too many buses pulling in at roadside stops sometimes occupy two lanes and cause new bottlenecks during peak hours.

Transport authorities said that on roads where special lanes for Olympic vehicles and for public transport co-exist, the lanes for buses are open to all vehicles.

"Driving onto the bus lane? No way. I have to wait a good 10 minutes for the buses lining in front of me to drive onto their lane and pull in at their stops," said Yu Min, a software engineer.

A Beijing traffic official thanked the citizens for being understanding and supportive on Tuesday. Reports of traffic jams and accidents have been cut by 78.8 percent and 47.1 percent respectively since the July 20 start of traffic control, said vice director of Beijing Traffic Management Bureau Wang Li.

Wang said she was confident that traffic would be good during the Games.

(Xinhua News Agency July 31, 2008)

Related Stories