BEIJING: With perceptible glee, industry officials announced in their year-end reports that China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest vehicle market after the United States.
Of the six million or so motor vehicles sold nationwide last year, nearly 400,000 units have ended up on the roads of Beijing, a city that already looks like a gigantic car park.
The double-digit growth in vehicle sales does not augur well for a city as polluted and congested as Beijing.
It’s beyond doubt that Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world, though city officials have categorically rejected it being rated the worst.
Air quality gets even poorer in the winter heating season when thousands of coal-fired furnaces kick into gear. While coal combustion is a traditional and major source of pollution, a growing share of the suspended particulates floating above the city comes from vehicular emissions.
Experts put this contribution at well over 30%, making vehicles the second single largest source of pollution.
Pollution aside, the explosive increase in car ownership is set to further clog the city’s already congested roads.
For the city’s residents, rush hour is no longer confined to the two periods of the day when people travel to or from work or school.
Every hour is, in fact, rush hour inside the Third Ring Road, where streams of vehicles crawl bumper-to-bumper at an average speed of 10km an hour, slower than the 12km for cyclists.
To minimise gridlock, city authorities are sweating their guts out to pave new roads for a growing fleet of vehicles, getting closer to the three million mark by the day.
The city plans to have 16,000km of roads by 2010, an increase of 1,276km from 2005. Upon completion of these roads, the authorities hope to increase the average speed of vehicles on arterial roads up to 20km per hour in rush hour.
But with nearly 400,000 vehicles hitting the roads annually, the authorities will soon realise that they’ll never build enough roads, and never fast enough.
The only plausible answer lies in the promotion of public transport.
Two and a half decades back when cars were a rare sight, Beijing seemed to have the widest roads and the highest public transport ridership in the world. So why are people shunning public transport now?
Though there might be many answers to the question, the city’s public transport system no longer lives up to commuters’ expectations. It is not convenient, comfortable or efficient.
To have a sound public transport system, Beijing needs to look no further than Hong Kong for a role model.
In the country’s most affluent city, more than 80% of residents choose to commute by a matrix of public transport systems, which include two high capacity railways, trams, buses, minibuses, taxis and ferries. But only 29% of Beijingers do likewise.
With a per capita gross domestic product of more than US$26,000, Hongkongers could have bought more cars than their Beijing brethren, who have just reached the US$7,000 mark.
As a matter of fact, there are only a little over half a million vehicles on the streets of a city of seven million people.
Whopping parking fees and fuel costs make car ownership an expensive privilege.
When public transport offers the comfort of air conditioning, convenience and fair price, there are enough incentives for Hongkongers not to own cars.
An encouraging message is that the Beijing municipal government has just taken a series of measures to improve the city’s public transport, which we hope will be attractive enough to draw back commuters. - CHINAdaily.com.cn
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