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China Names 'Car-Free Day'
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China has set aside the week of September 16-22, 2007 as its first public transport week. On the final day of this historic week, private car owners will be asked to leave their vehicles at home and ride bikes, use public transport or walk to work, school and shopping, Qiu Baoxing, deputy minister of construction, told a national meeting in Beijing on Saturday. The cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing and Hangzhou have pledged to join in the efforts.

If all private cars stayed off the streets for 24 hours, China would save 33 million liters of gasoline, reduce urban pollution by 90 percent and prevent an untold number of deaths and injuries from traffic accidents, authorities said. However, compliance by motorists will be voluntary although some streets in all the cities taking part will be blocked to private cars.

France initiated the no-car day in 1998, and two years later, the European Union's environmental agency kicked off European Mobility Week on September 16-22, which also featured a car-free day. The successful environmental model has since expanded to over 1,000 cities across Europe.

Qiu said China's program is designed to raise public awareness about the need for greater environmental protection by encouraging urbanites to use less polluting forms of transport. Rush-hour traffic jams often turn major roads in big cities into parking lots, Qiu added at the meeting.

The National Development and Reform Commission and the ministries of construction, finance and labor and social security released a document on Saturday, describing the development of public transportation as a priority and calls for favorable policies to promote its expansion.

Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of construction, said at the National Conference of Public Transport Development on Saturday that public transportation was the best way to dilute traffic congestion, a plague on China's major cities.

The document calls for the government to be the main investor in construction projects in the public transportation sector. It also encourages investment, subsidy and compensation systems to be created to promote its development.

A principal reason for subsidizing public transport enterprises is to offset the burden of future increases in petroleum prices.

The government will carry out an annual audit and appraisal of public transport enterprises' operations before implementing a performance-based subsidy system to reward those enterprises appraised as doing well.

Qiu said the average speed of vehicles on Beijing's main roads had fallen dramatically in the past decade, and that 60 percent of the city's main intersections suffer from serious traffic congestion.

"The rapid increase in the number of automobiles on the roads has placed great pressure on Beijing's traffic conditions, resources and environment," said Ji Lin, vice mayor of Beijing. "Treating the development of public transportation as a priority is one of the city's long-term strategies."

Ji said the vehicles plying Beijing's streets have now reached 2.82 million and are increasing at the rapid rate of 1,000 new cars per day.

"It is unrealistic to attempt to resolve the city's traffic jams simply by widening roads because any effort to widen the roads would lag behind the increase in automobiles," said Wang Fengwu, an official with the Ministry of Construction.

Wang said the ministry wanted public transportation to account for a third of the transportation available in the country's main cities within five years. This will be a marked challenge since it only accounts for 10 percent at present.

Wang said the ministry was considering changing the traffic signal system in some cities to favor public transportation. For example, buses could benefit from longer green lights at intersections.

According to World Bank statistics, the average speed of vehicles on the main roads between Beijing's second and third ring roads during rush hour has plummeted to 10 kilometer-per-hour (kph) last year from 45 kph in 1994, a speed inferior to that of bicycles.

In 2003, the economic losses caused by traffic congestion reached 250 billion yuan (US$31.25 billion), accounting for 2 percent of the year's GDP.

Fewer than 10 percent of city residents use public transport across the country on average, he said.

In large cities the figure is about 20 percent, compared with 40 to 60 percent in major metropolitan areas in Europe, Japan and South America.

(Shanghai Daily, Xinhua News Agency December 4, 2006)

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