Cars and Trucks in China: Today, 2015, and 2020

September 6, 2010 § 3 Comments

Three articles in today’s China English language newspapers speak, from different perspectives, to the enormous vehicular challenges China faces now and in the decade to come.

1. From Xinhua, an article “Measures put traffic jam on the road to clearance” begins:

The monster traffic jam on the Beijing-Tibet highway was greatly eased on Sunday after a number of emergency measures were introduced and cross-regional coordination enhanced by the Ministry of Public Security.

However, experts said the jam was likely to reoccur in the near future as the root cause of the problem – huge transportation demand on limited road capacity – remained.

Apart from an 8-km section between the Inner Mongolia autonomous region and Hebei province, traffic was back to normal on sections that had been jammed for the past month, according to Xinhua News Agency on Sunday.

This, of course, is mostly good news, unless you happen to be one of those drivers caught in the 8-km section where traffic inches along at half a kilometer a day.  If you’re carrying coal, as most are, you’re losing time and, thus, some money; if you’re carrying produce and other perishables, you’re losing everything.  Either way, you’re probably losing your patience.  And, in any event, as the article suggests, this won’t be the last time you get caught in a monster jam since too many trucks and cars now vie for space on the same roads.

Trucks at a standstill along Beijing-Tibet Highway

2. The Shanghai Daily, the People’s Daily, and all carry the same report: “China’s auto ownership expected to exceed 200 million in 2020.”  Here are the opening paragraphs from the Shanghai Daily:

China is expected to have 200 million cars on the road by 2020, increasing pressure on energy security and the environment, government officials said yesterday.

“In the face of environment and energy problems, stepping up efforts to promote fuel-efficient and green energy autos has become a vital issue for the industry,” Wang Fuchang, an official with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology told the International Forum on Chinese Automotive Industry Development in Tianjin.

Wang reiterated the nation’s goals for the next decade – increasing market share of pure-electric and plug-in electric autos, building world-competitive auto makers and parts manufacturers in the energy-efficient auto sector as well as raising fuel-efficiency to world levels.

China is aiming to be the world’s largest new energy vehicle market by 2020 with 5 million cars. It also aims to sell more than 15 million of the most fuel-efficient vehicles in the world each year by then.

Keep in mind here that the mega-jams over the past month, 75 miles long and lasting for ten days, come at a time when the number of cars in China is roughly 76 million.  How will 200 million cars–no matter how clean or energy efficient—operate reasonably smoothly on the country’s road and highway system?  Suppose the country determines to build out its road and highway infrastructure to allow for 200 million cars, as it most likely will.  Perhaps then the road and highway system will allow for 200 million automobiles.  But any energy savings resulting from the development of pure-electric, plug-in, and fuel-efficient vehicles will likely be more than offset by the energy costs of massive road and highway construction.

Normal traffic in Beijing

3.   Another article in the People’s Daily looks into the future as well and what it finds isn’t especially uplifting either: “Driving speed in Beijing may be only 15 km in 2015.”  The article begins on a somber note:

With the present growth rate, motor vehicles in Beijing will reach 7 million in 2015 and it is estimated that the average driving speed will slow to only 15 kilometers per hour, which is only equivalent to a person running at a middle speed, according to Beijing Transportation Research Center.

Although this is only an estimated result based on some figures, it will become a reality if no measures are carried out. As Beijing saw runaway growth in both population and autos, traffic in the city has become a widespread concern in the past five years.

It’s comforting to know that when I’m in Beijing five years from now I may be jogging faster than cars drive.  But then again I’ll be breathing in exhaust fumes spewed out by 7 million idling vehicles.

The government could put in place a range of disincentives to discourage car buying—increasing taxes on all cars (energy efficient or not), raising the rates for license plates, charging a congestion fee, especially in the big cities, hiking parking rates, and the like—but it won’t.  It’s pinning the country’s economic prosperity in no small part on the success of the automobile industry.


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§ 3 Responses to Cars and Trucks in China: Today, 2015, and 2020

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks, very interesting, and very scary! What about high-speed trains? Isn’t China in the process of building many of them? Are these high-speed trains being taken into account in the traffic jam equations?

    • Yes, the Chinese leadership is aggressively building high-speed trains, expanding public transit (subway system and BRT buses), and promoting the design and manufacture of electric and hybrid cars. But as they become increasingly affluent, the Chinese, or at least many of them, want the convenience–and prestige–of owning and driving their own cars. The government is mindful of the environmental consequences of the automobile (hence the development of high-speed trains, the subway system, and greener cars); at the same time, however, it views the automobile industry as essential to China’s continued economic prosperity.

  • Anonymous says:

    Excellent post. It does point up the need for a strong central government: market forces will only exacerbate this problem. But it sounds as if the central government is having quite a hard time figuring out how to deal with this mess.

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