In quick order, China has climbed to the top of global rankings of producers and consumers of such key commodities as steel, aluminum, cement, and asphalt. These are all important materials for building cars, trucks, highways, and related infrastructure. In automobile production, China breezed past Germany (in 2006), the United States (2008), and then Japan (2009) to become the world’s largest automobile producer. If we include trucks and buses, China’s total motor vehicle sales in 2009 added up to 13 million vehicles, muscling aside the United States for the first time.
Is it any surprise that China now also has the unenviable distinction of being home to perhaps the worst traffic jam ever? Gridlock extending over a 100-kilometer stretch of the Beijing-Tibet Expressway formed on August 14. It is expected to last into the middle of September, when a major construction project on the adjacent National Expressway 110 is to be completed. (See Figure)
There is an ongoing mismatch between China’s rapidly multiplying fleet of cars and trucks, and the capacity of its roads and highways to handle the enormous flows of people and goods. China has created a massive road infrastructure. But just like Western countries found long ago, a new highway’s capacity is typically filled by the time it is opened to traffic. A “build, baby, build” approach will not work.
Part of the solution will lie in shifting a greater share of transport flows from road to rail. To some extent, this is happening. In the three decades since 1981, China spent 5.9 trillion Yuan ($860 billion) on highways, almost three times the $300 billion it spent on rail. But in more recent years, the country’s leadership decided to accelerate rail investments. In 2005–2010, rail infrastructure investments rose more than fivefold, whereas road infrastructure expenditures remained relatively flat. If China does not want to experience more of the epic traffic jams it currently faces, it will need to continue to shift its transportation priorities.
But Chinese innovators are not content with existing solutions. At the end of 2010, construction is to begin in Beijing’s Mentougou District on a pilot project variously called the “3D Fast Bus” or the “straddling bus.” A four-meter tall vehicle that accommodates up to 1,400 passengers would bypass cars stuck in traffic by in effect driving right above and around them. It seems like this is the transportation equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.