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Auto Era Poses Tough Challenges

China is accelerating into the auto era, but finding that its forward momentum is accompanied by diminishing land resources, worsening environmental pollution, energy shortages and terrible traffic congestion.

Arable land has given way to roads and parking lot construction to ease transportation bottlenecks and accommodate a rapidly increasing number of motor vehicles.

The Ministry of Communications reports that China had 29,800 kilometers of expressways by the end of last year, second only to the United States. But for each kilometer of highway constructed, 1,000 tons of bitumen, 400 tons of cement and steel, and a large amount of sand are laid over the top of what was once farmland.

Motor vehicles now account for one-third of the country's total petroleum consumption.

The State Council's Development and Research Center (DRC) predicts that fuel demand for autos nationwide will reach 138 million tons by 2010 and 256 million tons by 2020, accounting for 43 percent and 57 percent, respectively, of expected total petroleum use.

However, during the same period, China's petroleum production will reach no more than 200 million tons, cautioned officials of the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR). Obviously, this means increasing reliance on foreign oil.

"Petroleum is not only for driving, it is a basic production material of the modern industrial society," says Zhang Dawei, director of MLR's strategy research center. "How can we sacrifice basic needs like food, clothing and shelter just for transportation?"

But even persistently rising prices cannot curb automakers and customers' appetite for oil: production and sales have both expanded at a rate of 50 percent for the past two years and the trend is expected to last for several years to come.

Large cities like Beijing, Shanghai and southern Guangzhou may have a deeper feeling about the effects of the auto era, since in addition to using up precious space and oil resources, auto emissions have become a notorious source of pollutants like carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

A World Bank report says that China's auto-related pollution is worsening. The long-term effects of air pollution on citizens' health are already making themselves felt.

The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) predicts that gas emissions from motor vehicles will account for 79 percent of urban air pollution in the country by 2005.

Nevertheless, traffic jams are the problem drawing the greatest number of complaints from city dwellers, who often face long lines of cars on their way home or to work.

Last year, Beijing became the first city in the country with two million vehicles on its streets. It tops the list of gridlock-hit areas.

If growth continues at the current rate, the capital will be home to 3.5 million cars by 2008, just in time for the Summer Olympics. The city has been struggling since last year with traffic chaos, a problem caused by low driving standards, poor road design and continuous construction.

Traffic congestion has cost people and businesses in the city a huge amount of time and, according to economist Mao Yushi, "About six billion yuan worth of direct losses a year."

Beijing's newly elected Mayor Wang Qishan has said that traffic is his biggest headache.

Experts agree that the government must adapt its policies to this rapidly changing situation.

"It should shift its regulation focus from the industry to society as a whole," says Lu Zhiqiang, adding that only coordinated development of the two can help China avoid unnecessary cost.

It is only a question of time before China leaves the bicycle era in the dust of
the auto age, says Chen Qingtai, a DRC deputy director.

He urges the country to prepare itself for a flood of cars in the next 10 or 20 years.

"Otherwise, we'll be at a loss when the time comes." 
(Xinhua News Agency March 18, 2004)

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