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China Diary #2: Snarr Addresses China's Traffic and Pollution Issues

By Michael Snarr

May 12, 2012

Michael Snarr and his son, Ty, pose at the Great Wall of China.

Michael Snarr and his son, Ty, pose at the Great Wall of China.

China’s extremely large population creates major traffic issues resulting in pollution and congestion. Those who watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics are familiar with the city's air pollution problem.

Soon after arriving in Beijing we experienced not only air pollution, but overcrowded roads as well. Rush hour, of course, is especially bad. A significant contributor to both problems is the increasing number of vehicles on the roads.

A consequence of China's booming economy has been the dramatic increase in individual car ownership, especially since the early 2000s. Tens of thousands of new cars are added to Beijing's traffic each year — adding to both the city's smog and the traffic problems.

The Chinese government has taken several measures to reduce the number of cars on the road. For instance, the government keeps the price of the subway and taxis artificially low. The subway costs only about 30 cents to ride — millions utilize it everyday.

The downside is that during rush hour one may have to wait in line for two or three trains to come through your stop before boarding. Our group steered clear of the subway during these times. There are now 14 subway lines in Beijing, far many more than there were just a few years ago.

The government also controls private car usage by limiting the number of days and times individual cars can drive in Beijing. For example, cars with license plates ending in 4 and 9 could not drive on Monday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. These numbers and days rotate every three months. This policy is very similar to the one Mexico City implemented to deal with traffic and smog.

The comparison does not end there. In both cities, many wealthy families have purchased an additional car with a license plate (ending in a different number) in order to skirt the policy.

The policies are even more dramatic in Shanghai, which has a larger population than Beijing squeezed into one-third of the area. Shanghai has built elevated roads (running above the older roads) and auctioned off license plates to try to reduce the number of private vehicles on its roads.

Only about 9,000 new license plates were auctioned off last month, and they sold for $10,000 each! The proceeds are used to fund the elevated roads and the subway.

Michael Snarr is a professor of social and political studies at Wilmington College. He and his son, Ty, are part of a Wilmington College entourage includes women’s basketball team members and several parents.