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China considers emergency traffic measures

China is considering an emergency plan to tackle a traffic jam crisis enveloping the capital Beijing.

The city government has issued proposals to clear the congestion and is seeking public opinion on the plan that involves increasing capacity of public buses and subways, building roads and increasing parking fees.

“Traffic congestion is a reflection of economic development and the improvement of living standards,” the city’s transportation commission said today.

It listed causes of the gridlock including high population density, rapid increase in the number of private vehicles, overloaded public transportation and poor traffic management.

There are now 4.7M cars in Beijing, nearly double the 2.6M in 2005. An average of nearly 2,000 new cars hit the road each day.

But the high volume does not tell the whole story. The problem is exacerbated by the jostle for space with buses, bicycles and even the occasional horse-drawn cart. Aggressive driving is the norm, as is a casual disregard for traffic rules.

The plan’s release did have one unintended side effect – many car sales sites in Beijing emptied as crowds snapped up vehicles amid rumours the government might try to restrict new sales.

“Sales are much better than we expected,” said Zhang Bo, sales manager at a Toyota dealership where customers have to wait two months for a Camry or Highlander. At a Volkswagen dealership, the wait time for the Golf was six months.

The city is not yet proposing any sales restrictions, although it said it may ban cars on alternate days “when necessary,” based an odd-even system using the last number of the number plate. Currently, the city bans private cars from the roads one day a week, based on the last number of the plate.

Odd-even car bans were imposed during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and reduced congestion considerably, though the rule also prompted wealthy Beijingers to simply go out and buy another car.

Zhang Yu, a senior engineer with the Urban Transport Centre under the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, said studies showed that 60% of the time, people’s destinations are less than 5km from their homes.

“Residents should consider going by bike or on foot or taking public transportation,” she said. But bus lanes are crowded and many people find it faster to drive.

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