The journey from Xizhimen in northwest Beijing's Haidian District to Dongsi Shitiao in eastern Beijing's Dongcheng District, along the northern section of the Second Ring Road, took around 20 minutes by public transport two or three years ago.
Now, however, covering the same distance takes nearly 40 minutes on average and as much as two hours if there are traffic jams.
Traffic problems in Beijing have become a serious headache for residents and the municipal government.
Beijing's roads are like an enormous parking lot at rush hour. People complain that riding a bicycle is often faster than driving a car.
The number of motor vehicles in Beijing has exceeded 2 million, an official with the municipal government's traffic committee told a press conference last month.
Zhang Lingwei, a 25-year-old office worker who commutes by bus every day from Haidian District to her workplace in the south of the city, described her daily experience.
"Originally, it just took me less than one hour to travel from my home to my workplace if everything went smoothly," she said. "But now I have to purposely set out 45 minutes earlier every morning, taking the morning rush into consideration.
"The bus is always at a standstill. Sitting on the bus, you might see bicycles and pedestrians on the road weaving their way slowly between buses and cars in all directions, and all I can do is merely wait patiently.''
A middle-aged United States professor with a renowned Chinese university, who refused to be identified, said Beijing's traffic was getting "progressively worse'' and was "terrible'' in rush hour.
"It makes it really hard to plan when you are going to cross town because you never know how long it will take,'' said the professor, who has been living in Beijing for 15-and-a-half years.
She also recalled that, about a decade ago, the roads in Beijing were not as broad as they are now. At that time, horses and carts could even be seen on Beijing's main streets, and traffic jams were rare, she said.
But, as the times changed, the roads in Beijing have been extended and broadened on an unprecedented scale. The number of roads built in Beijing since 1998 alone exceeds all those constructed in the previous 20 years.
Reasons for traffic jams
What are the reasons for the notorious traffic situation in Beijing?
At a press conference on Beijing's proposed solutions to traffic jams held in late September, Liu Xiaoming -- deputy director with the Beijing Municipal Communications Commission -- discussed the reasons for the traffic tension.
With people's needs for transport facilities increasing substantially over the past few years, the road network in Beijing is far from rational, said Liu.
Stimulated by high demand, the number of private cars in Beijing has increased since 1995 at an average annual rate of over 30 percent, while the number of motor vehicles overall has increased by only around 15 percent per year on average over the same period.
In previous years, a car was a consumer good that Chinese families did not even dare dream of owning, but cars are now becoming more accessible to the masses.
Guo Yong, head of the Beijing-based Yayuncun Automobile Trade Market's business centre, said motor vehicles have sold particularly well so far this year in the capital.
He told China Daily that, in his market alone, nearly 6,000 motor vehicles have been sold in one month at peak periods, with the daily volume of business amounting to between 200 and 300 vehicles sold.
Explaining the surge in demand, Guo said: "Nowadays, cars are quite common for the masses, who can afford them and also have a need for them.
"Moreover, relatively speaking, Beijing boasts a better consumer environment as well as a steady and open policy.''
In a survey conducted by a well-known women's magazine, 63 percent of the 50 white-collar women polled said they were very interested in cars and they could list more than 10 brands. Some of them even mentioned car brands with which most Chinese are not very familiar.
Of the 50 women polled, 12 percent already had a car and they said that, for them, driving a car was so natural that they did not need to think about it.
Cars have become a part of these women's lives and are regarded as not just a means of transport but also as a mobile office and dressing room.
For a long time, most Chinese believed that a car was something for only men and not women, and this attitude can still be seen in car advertisements, most of which are aimed at a male audience.
However, the fact that women are buying cars with their own money shows that the age of the car in China is coming.
At last month's press conference, Liu also explained that road construction in Beijing has failed to keep up with the sharp increase in the number of cars.
The government has found that the increasing volume of cars has been seizing limited traffic resources from public transport, added Liu.
Xu Shu, a 23-year-old sales representative with a foreign-funded corporation, said he plans to buy a car at the end of this year.
When questioned why he chose to buy a car rather than travel by public transport everyday, Xu said he does not have a fixed workplace but has to visit several hypermarkets every day and some of them are in the suburbs. Owning a car is more convenient and saves time compared to traveling by bus or metro, he said.
Xu added that, at the same time, he understood that the increase in the number of private cars would worsen the already poor traffic conditions but he said he could see no better way out.
Another factor that has aggravated traffic conditions is the absence of a modern traffic consciousness among private car buyers and drivers as well as other citizens, said Liu.
In other international metropolises, such as Paris and Tokyo, the volume of private cars far exceeds the number in Beijing. However, 60 to 80 percent of citizens in large cities in Europe or the United States travel on public transport, a rate two or three times that in Beijing.
In Beijing, most of the important political, commercial and cultural locations are concentrated in the area within the Fourth Ring Road and this is a root cause of today's heavy traffic load, according to Liu.
However, some experts hold that, in addition to objective factors such as the larges volume of vehicles, the sharp increase in new cars and the relatively slow expansion of roads, another root cause of Beijing's traffic jams lies in the layout of the capital city and poor traffic management.
According to sources with the China Economic Herald newspaper, the sharp increase in car numbers over the past few years is not the only reason for the traffic jams.
Taking into consideration the present population in Beijing, the current traffic situation in the capital is far from reasonable given that the volume of vehicles totals only around 2 million, whether the situation is viewed in terms of international precedent or theoretical analysis.
The sources said this indicates that there is great room for improvement in administering the current level of traffic.
Experts have called on the relevant departments to focus on the rational layout of the traffic network, including metro lines, flyovers, platform bridges and pedestrian underpasses.
For instance, there continued to be traffic jams around the Xizhimen cloverleaf intersection in Haidian District, even after the junction was rebuilt in 1999.
It is clear that the government failed to deal properly with road intersections, which have resulted in bottlenecks in the road network and thus directly led to traffic jams.
Improving traffic administration constitutes a systematic project, involving the quality of personnel and the formulation and implementation of relevant rules and policies, the sources added.
An anonymous Internet user giving his opinion on the Sina website pointed out that, as China's traffic administration departments lack a comprehensive management system for traffic flow, traffic jams that take place on one road often affect traffic on several other routes.
"In this regard, we should learn from the practice of other countries,'' he added. "When there is a traffic jam on one road, the traffic lights on other routes should be adjusted accordingly and the flow of vehicles controlled, relieving the overall congestion.''
Not long ago, there was controversy when it was said that the municipal government would restrict the increasing number of private cars in order to relieve the capital's traffic conditions.
It was also said that private car drivers would have to pay an extra tax when applying for a license plate.
An official surnamed Tong, of the Municipal Communications Commission, told China Daily that this story arose from a discussion meeting in which the commission outlined its tentative plans for resolving the capital's traffic jams to the higher-level delegates of the Beijing Municipal People's Congress
She explained that the proposal was put forward at a forum and so she personally believed that the restrictions on private cars would by no means be put on the agenda in the near future.
In addition, the motor manufacturing industry is a key industry for the capital, and government policies would continue to encourage car buying, added Tong.
There is great curiosity among Beijingers as to what measures the government will take to improve the city's notorious traffic environment.
At a press conference, the Beijing Municipal Communications Commission outlined its measures for the near future on how to relieve the traffic tensions.
The measures include compiling a document on the issue, elaborating what the government has done and the achievements it has made over the past decade, and also summarizing experiences and lessons to be learned.
By analyzing the current problems with the traffic system, the government will be able to draw up scientific plans to administer transport.
The document is now being compiled and is open to public comment. Work on it is expected to finish at the end of this year.
The commission also promised to devote major efforts to developing public transport and make traffic in the city more efficient.
Concrete steps that have been proposed include speeding up the construction of the urban rail system, such as lines 4, 5, 9 and 10, the feeder line for the 2008 Olympic Games and a special line to the airport.
The government is also scheduled to implement a more affordable, flexible and appropriately scaled system called the Bus Rapid Transit system. This is due to have a total length of 16 kilometers and be at the southern part of the city's central axis road.
This system is based on the principles of light-rail transit but, instead of investing capital in trains and track, it will utilize buses in a service that will be integrated with key components of the existing transport infrastructure for cars, such as roads and rights of way, intersections, and traffic signals.
According to the commission, the project will be start being used by the end of next year.
In addition, the government will seek both a temporary solution and a permanent cure to the traffic tension and alleviate the contradiction between pedestrians, cars and roads basing on the existing conditions.
In the area of Baiyilu in Haidian District, there are 37 bus routes, severely reducing the speed of the overall traffic flow. After being transformed in line with the outlined public transit network, the existing 37 bus routes will be reduced to 24, ensuring a high-speed, continuous traffic flow around this area.
The commission is also working on plans to strengthen administration of both the transport industry and traffic order, at the same time fostering a modern traffic consciousness among citizens.
As regards how to reduce traffic jams, experts in other fields have come up with various proposals.
Sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng, a 56-year-old associate professor with Renmin University of China, told China Daily: "It is ridiculous for a person weighing 50 or 60 kilograms to drive a machine weighing several tons.''
Diseases of the respiratory tract have become the main threat to the health of the capital's citizens in winter in recent years, and the 2 million cars are to blame, he added.
Therefore, Zhou suggested that people use bicycles, which are an environmentally friendly means of transport, and at the same time strictly restrict the use of private cars.
However, a source with the China Economic Herald said: "Our policies should not be directed against the increase in automobiles but ought to target how to welcome this new civilization, a feature of which is the leading position of cars in society.''
Other specialists said they believe that developing a fast urban public transport system is the best way to ease the capital's transport pressures.
A decrease in the amount of traffic jams is not only an obligation of the host city of the Olympic Games but also a duty of the municipal government.
At the first session of the 12th Beijing Municipal People's Congress held at the beginning of this year, 258 delegates put forward 15 bills or proposals on the issue of traffic administration.
Since where there is a will, there is a way, Beijing can thus take effective measures to encourage public transport and improve the traffic situation.
(China Daily October 7, 2003)