China's Traffic Troubles

Shanghai's Nanpu bridge illuminated at night
Shanghai's Nanpu bridge illuminated at night. Getty Images/Martin Puddy

China hasn’t always had a problem with traffic, but over the past couple of decades, as China rapidly urbanizes, the country’s urban denizens have had to adapt their lives to a new phenomenon: gridlock.

How Bad Is China’s Traffic Problem?

It’s really bad. You may have heard about the China National Highway 10 traffic jam on the news a few years ago; it was 100 kilometers long and lasted ten days, involving thousands of cars.

But outside of the mega-jams, most cities are plagued with daily traffic that rivals the worst gridlock in Western cities. And that's despite a plethora of affordable public transportation options and anti-traffic legislation in many cities that mandates (for example) that cars with even and odd-numbered license plates must drive on alternating days, so only half of the city’s cars can legally take to the road at any given time.

Of course, China’s urban traffic jams are also a major factor in its pollution problems.

Why Is Traffic In China So Bad?

There are a number of reasons for China’s traffic congestion woes:

  1. Like most older cities around the world, many of Chinese cities were not designed for cars. They were also not designed to support the massive populations they now boast (Beijing, for example, has more than 20 million people). As a result, in many cities, the roads are simply not big enough.

  1. Cars are considered a status symbol. In China, buying a car often isn’t as much about convenience as it is about showing that you can buy a car because you’re enjoying a successful career. Lots of white-collar workers in Chinese cities who might otherwise be satisfied with public transportation buy cars in the name of keeping up with (and impressing) the Joneses, and once they’ve got the cars, they feel obliged to use them.

  1. China’s roads are full of new drivers. Even a decade ago, cars were far less common than they are now, and if you go back in time twenty years. China didn’t break the two million vehicle mark until around the year 2000, but a decade later it had more than five million. That means that at any time, a significant percentage of the people driving on China’s roads only have a few years of experience. Sometimes, that leads to questionable driving decisions, and that can cause gridlock when those decisions lead to blocked roads for one reason or another.

  2. China’s driver education is not great. Driver education schools often only teach driving on closed courses, so new graduates are literally taking to the roads for the first time when they get behind the wheel. And because of corruption in the system, some new drivers haven’t taken any classes at all. As a result, China has a lot of accidents: its traffic fatality rate per 100,000 cars is 36, which is more than double the United States, and several times more than European countries like the UK, France, Germany, and Spain (which all have rates under 10).

  3. There are just too many people. Even with great driver education, wider roads, and fewer people buying cars, traffic jams would still be likely in a city like Beijing, which is host to more than twenty million people.

    What Does the Chinese Government Do About Traffic?

    The government has worked hard to create public transportation infrastructure that takes pressure off cities' roads. Nearly every major city in China is building or expanding a subway system, and the prices of these systems are often subsidized to make them extremely enticing. Beijing’s subway, for example, costs just 2 RMB ($0.32) for a ride anywhere in the city, regardless of how many times you transfer between lines or how far you’ve gone. Chinese cities also generally have extensive bus networks, and there are buses going virtually everywhere you could imagine.

    The government has also worked to improve long-distance travel, building new airports and rolling out a massive network of high-speed trains designed to get people where they’re going faster and keep them off the highways.

    Finally, city governments have also taken restrictive measures to limit the number of cars on the road, like Beijing’s even-odd rule, which stipulates that only cars with even- or odd-numbered license plates can be on the road on any given day (it alternates).

    What Do Regular People Do About Traffic?

    They avoid it as best they can. People who want to get where they’re going quickly and reliably generally take public transportation if they’re traveling in a city around rush hour. Biking is also a common way of avoiding the gridlock if you’re headed somewhere nearby.

    People also tend to be accommodating when it comes to the realities of rush-hour traffic in China; taxis, for example, often pick up more than one passenger at a time during busy hours to ensure they’re not spending hours sitting in traffic with a single fare. And Chinese subways get jam-packed with passengers during rush hour. It’s uncomfortable, but people have put it with it. Spending 30 minutes getting home in an uncomfortable subway car beats spending 3 hours in a slightly-more-comfortable regular car, at least for most people.