Will the 10-Day Mega-Jams End?
August 30, 2010 § 3 Comments
The 60-mile jam on the Beijing-Tibet Highway, beginning on August 14th and lasting for 10 days, is now old news. The media were filled with pictures of trucks and cars at a standstill, of drivers outside their vehicles sleeping, smoking, washing, chatting, relieving themselves, and playing cards, and of vendors biking and wheelbarrowing from vehicle to vehicle selling water, noodles, crackers and other refreshments to the captive motorists at 1000% inflated rates. Truckers and motorists emerging from the virtual standstill reported being caught in the mother of all jams for 5 days and nights.
The real worry is that this sort of gridlock, mindboggling as it is, soon won’t be newsworthy. As the first jam broke up, another 19-mile one was already, a mere four days later, forming. Are the back-ups destined to become routine, a common occurrence on China’s roads and highway system? A look at the range of factors that explain these recent mega-jams doesn’t offer much hope for the immediate future.
China, to be sure, is focused on increasing wind and solar energy, but coal still supplies more than 70% of the country’s energy needs. After the government shutdown of the coal mines in Shanxi province last year following a series of deadly accidents, Inner Mongolia has become the country’s largest coal supplier. Truckers pick up their load (usually an overload) of coal near Baotou in Inner Mongolia and transport it to the outskirts of Beijing by way of the Beijing-Tibet highway, where it is then moved to the city’s steel mills and power plants and to ports just east of Beijing, from which it will be shipped to power plants in south China
The population of Beijing is skyrocketing, approaching 20 million; construction continues to boom; and energy consumption (both in the aggregate and per capita) is on the increase. Trucks ferrying their overloads to feed Beijing and China’s growing energy and construction appetite break down—and you have a jam. Trucks rumble along the highway with their enormous loads and a portion of the road gives way under their weight—and you have a jam. One big truck veers into another—and you have a jam. The collapsed roads require repair and the congested highway system requires expansion—and you have a jam.
Then there is the love affair with the car. In 2009 China for the first time became the world’s largest automobile market, buying more than 13 million vehicles. In 2010, in Beijing alone nearly 2000 new vehicles enter the roads each day. Roadway construction simply can’t keep up with demand. And even as the government tries to build the system out, it creates construction hazards and blockages for the trucks and cars on the road.
The Beijing leadership is working to expand public transit—subways, trains, and the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system—but this will require time and even when the expansion has progressed we might find that Chinese (not unlike Americans) still prefer to drive their own vehicles.
A populous Beijing, increasing energy needs, massive construction, a love affair with the car—all factors producing the mega-jams of August 2010—aren’t going away soon. Can the mega-jams?