Relieving China’s Traffic Jam

China’s recent stimulus push, involving dozens of infrastructure projects and hundreds of billions of yuan, boosted stock prices around the world, bolstered confidence in the Chinese economy and took the country one giant leap further down the urbanization road. But as with most of China’s big plans, the implementation tends to be a chaotic mixture of scientific efficiency and headlong, creative destruction. Transportation in particular presents a knotted conundrum of middle class aspirations, global market forces, shady construction projects and big, black clouds of CO2.

The Volkswagen production facility in Longquan, 35 minutes southeast of Chengdu’s city center, represents the global, scientifically efficient side of China’s infrastructure boom. The facility employs nearly 7,000 workers, who, together with more than 400 robots and amazing feats of engineering like Durr’s Eco Dry Scrubber, churn out sedans for China’s car-hungry middle class. Volkswagen plans on producing 1 million automobiles a year out of Longquan, most for the southwest China market.

Workers put together another VW for the Chinese market

Sagitars are already rolling out of the facility’s doors and they will soon be joined by the new Jetta. At around 80,000 yuan, both cars target the growing middle class in southwest China. This emerging consumer wants to not only drive to work, but also take day trips out to Leshan, Ya’an and Xichang – the new nongjiale (homestay) destinations for urbanites seeking solace from the city.

Chengdu has an estimated 3 million registered vehicles and about 1,000 more are added every week. The city, including outlying districts like Dujiangyan, Dayi and Longquan, has a population of 14 million and city planners expect that number to increase to 20 million in the next 15 years. Right now 40 out of 1,000 of own a car, but that ratio is expected to grow to at least 200 per 1,000 in the next decade.

“People in Chengdu want to be mobile and value being mobile,” said Christian Koch, VW China’s executive vice-president of products and logistics. “We go where the customers are.”

One Huge Traffic Jam

China currently has an urban population of 600 million people. In 15 – 20 years, 350 million more will be added, an increase equal to the entire population of the United States. By 2030 there will be 1 billion urbanites spread out across 220 cities, each with at least 1 million in population, together accounting for almost 90% of the country’s GDP.

One of the biggest questions facing China is how to provide adequate and efficient transport for all of those urbanites. One quick look around shows that the country is going full-steam ahead with roadway, highway, railway and subway projects. Chengdu has added two Metro Lines, two high-speed rail links (and another on the way to Leshan), thousands of miles of freeway, and a host of rail links in the last 10 years. Yet the roads and rails are still jammed and the buses and subways are almost always packed.

Today Chengdu is once again a big construction site. There was a small breather for a year after the Metro Line 1 was completed, but now the entire Second Ring Road is receiving an upper deck. Construction on the ring road has made traffic almost unbearable and it will stay like this until the Fortune Global Forum next June, the deadline for construction set by the city’s authorities. The recent opening of Metro Line 2 may provide a saving grace. The line, which stretches east to west across the city, had a soft opening earlier this month and is fully operational as of Monday, September 10th Sunday September 16th. The city plans to roll out two more lines in the next few years, but the plans also call for an elevated level for the First Ring Road. Citizens are bracing for another five years of traffic jams.

Chengdu's Second Ring Road
Construction of the upper deck on Chengdu’s Second Ring Road circles the city, imposing over nearby traffic

This year’s Chengdu Motor Show will attract up to 600,000 people – buyers, dealers and outright gawkers – who will check out the 420 different models on display. FAW VW already reported 1,000 orders of the new Jetta, on display at the show, and those numbers are sure to rise in the weeks ahead. As Chengdunese place orders in the largest car boom in the history of mankind, a plaintive voice of opposition makes the rounds on Sina Weibo. Entitled “Chengdunese have had enough“, the post laments a decade of traffic jams and the numbing spectre of a decade more ahead:

“10 years ago, when they started re-building the transport network, the Party and the government told us: today’s inconvenience is for tomorrow’s efficiency. We endured! 10 years of construction and traffic jams later, the Party and the government told us: the subway is on its way, the traffic jams are almost over. We endured! Construction on the metro started everywhere; roads were blocked, one couldn’t take a left anywhere and the city was riddled with one-way streets. The Party and government told us, only a few more years and it will be over. We endured!

The big boss changed and now we’re back to building again. Today I was two hours late for work and had my salary docked. Please tell me, how long must we endure this? Urgent request: Relevant organs, please start managing the city planning. Don’t build recklessly everywhere, or, as soon as someone new takes charge, start digging. You have “professional cars” and “white license plates” all we can do is endure. No more!”

China’s roads may look like this for some time to come

A Mad Scramble For the Cash

Building a functional, modern, and sustainable transport network up from scratch is a huge undertaking. Countries with decades of experience, billions in funds and the added luxuries of low population density and manageable social pressure still consider traffic management to be one of the most complex and expensive civil engineering challenges around. China has but 20 years of practical experience, a massive population and a vocal and growing middle and upper class that wants good transportation. But they do have the cash.

Even so, one major issue impedes the efficient use of all that cash. Namely, serious inter-ministerial conflict, corruption and miscommunication. The Ministry of Railways and the Ministry of Transportation do not work that well with each other, or the half-dozen other government bodies involved in road and rail construction, such as the Public Security Bureau, the Bureau of Standards and various provincial construction and transportation bureaus. Add to that the fact that most railway construction companies also own the highway construction companies, allowing the rail people to move into road building (such as the failed venture in Poland). There is a different government body in charge of highway statistics, construction, maintenance, and planning; every single one is plagued by corrupt officials, unscrupulous contractors and a dozen internal and external factions competing for central government funds.

Worse still, much of that funding is now being handled on the local level, so corruption, incompetence, and injustice go unchecked by any form of authority. Farmers are pushed off of their lands while local officials siphon off compensation funds; contractors under-bid and then either demand more money or do a sub-par job; and ministry officials rotate in and out of office, passing the buck on to the next guy. Projects are often held hostage to the political aims of leaders out to impress someone, as may be the case with the Second Ring Road improvements, so efficiency and need take a back seat to immediate political or material gain. The general manager of an expressway construction company is a coveted position and everyone from low-level transportation officials from the townships to the provincial level construction bureaus is vying for the spot, or influence with whomever has temporarily landed it.

Yet even with all of the chaos and piracy, this movement will not stop. Urbanization is the key to transforming China into a consumer-based society and consumption means, among other things, building roads and buying cars.

An Unstoppable Force

Chengdu has had enough!

In 1986, 28.2% of the Chinese population used public transportation, 62% rode bikes and a mere 5% drove cars. By 2009, those numbers changed to 38.9%, 18% and 34% respectively. How can China promote public transportation among the middle classes and thereby pull some percentage points away from car ownership? Massive upgrades in public transportation are big help, as are usage incentives or dis-incentives. Guangzhou and Beijing are already regulating usage and have quotas in place. Every other major city in China, including Chengdu, is mulling over similar regulations, while barreling forward with infrastructure projects to help alleviate the pressure.

And the verdict is still out on electric cars, once the anointed savior of the driving class. Although the technology for electric batteries exists – and the Chinese are some of the best in the world at making batteries – integrating new and old tech in an affordable and efficient car has so far escaped even the most advanced automobile manufacturers. No manufacturer has put together an electric car with mass appeal yet and even if they did, there is still a huge elephant lurking in the corner: even promising prototypes have to get their electricity from somewhere.

For China today, coal is the number one source of electricity production. China handles 1.5 billion tons of it annually, by far the number one producer and consumer of coal in the world. According to the International Energy Agency, “China’s share in global coal production is almost four times that of Saudi Arabia’s production of oil … (and) … China’s share in global coal consumption is more than twice that of the demand for oil in the United States.”

Even if electric cars were able to minimize exhaust, the coal China uses to power the electrical grid would more than make up for any decrease in pollution. China currently has around 70 million cars on the road and that number may increase to somewhere between 400 and 550 million by 2030. The added exhaust will pump an approximate 3 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere; we inject 7 billion tons into the sky today.

But even that may not be the end of China’s growth. The estimates for 2030 hover around 200 automobiles per 1,000 people (up from 40 per 1,000 today). In Europe the ratio is 400 to 1,000 and in the US it is as high as 600 to 1,000. If Chinese drive as ardently as Americans, then the world will have to answer the question: What happens when a billion Chinese drive?

32 thoughts on “Relieving China’s Traffic Jam”

  1. Great article! Scary to think about. I don’t think the second line is quite open to the public yet though. I’ve heard the official date is Sept 16.

    I’d just like to add: some traffic law regulation couldn’t hurt either.

  2. Nice article. Good job pointing out the fact that electric bikes and scooters are not really environmentally innocent modes of transport, since they just draw energy off of the coal-fueled grid. The carbon footprint of someone on a bike is still lower than someone in a car however. And by the measure of convenience, they are definitely the best way to get around Chengdu.

  3. i heard through the rumor mill that Chengdu has some of the best traffic management software the world has to offer, but they elect to not train their people how to use it, so it doesn’t get used. The lights are not managed properly for one thing … and we don’t need to get into the basic rules of the road thing …

    @eli: absolutely, bikes are what it is. The only thing that might break the inevitable rise to 400 million cars (holy shit.) is a consciousness shift that has people choose cool bikes over cars. Possible. *shrugs*

  4. Great article. I would like to’ve known more about the dis-incentives other cities have in place. But I can look it up, or ask you over a bowl of Broke Jian Dan Mian or Broke Gong Bao Ji Ding. Really though, the question has been there, just as all questions that go something like, “What is going to happen when x many people start doing things in China?” have been on the tips of tongues. The article gives the challenges involved a logical outline. If only those in charge here in the Du did it the same.
    One time for my Broke writers.

  5. Livin’ the dream.

    I always remember an old Chinese colleague of mine – who I occasionally used to cycle to work with – outline her new lunchtime ritual. She noted how she now went from school to her car across the street, which she paid to park, and then drove straight down the street to her daughter’s school – where her husband worked. The whole process taking about 10 minutes. She then drove back to the school for afternoon classes, before returning again to meet her daughter at the end of the day. They then drove home, about 5 minutes by car.

    Just weeks earlier, and for years before that, this lady had cycled down the road at lunch time -occasionally with me in tow – and then home in the evenings, with her daughter on the back of her bike, and her husband cycling beside them. Now, she makes 6 journeys a day in her VW Golf.

    Happy Days.

    Hope life’s treating you well, Sascha.

  6. Super interesting figures in this write up. But I’m curious what the Poland incident is about?

    I’m also glad of the mention of e-cars not-too-necessarily eco friendly impact. I find the fact that eliminating the physical presence of gasoline from the equation can actually buy a more “astute” consumers peace of mind.

    I’m worried that bicycling infrastructure is only an afterthought. You see a good deal of bike lanes and boulevards, but now it’s an accommodation for those hoping to move on to the auto. With the rise of cars in China it’s only too easy to see them later being designated as parking or rebuilt as an extra car lane.

    Advocacy might help but knowing the process I fear it’d have little effect.

  7. Well written. I grew up riding bikes in Chengdu. The city is perfect for biking.It’s not too big and it’s super flat. Then this car-buying frenzy started. Suddenly people have to drive , and they have to drive sedans and SUVs, like the Americans do. Except it’s not quite working out. It’s a little bit more crowded here. It’s too sad the government had zero vision for the city’s transportation model. They are still clueless. The ‘leaders’ destroyed so much of the best of the city, trees, old neighborhoods, places of interests,rivers, just to make ways for stupid cars (the perk is they get to ride for free on tax payer’s money). And the government made a fortune taxing the car industry without putting that money into constructive use. They build, that’s all they do, but never in a constructive way. Everything they build don’t last for 5 years. It’s either shitty work or gets pulled down for something more shitty. Chengdu is unique. It could have been the Portland in China. It already was It’s nothing like Beijing or Shanghai. It doesn’t need so many cars. It cannot handle so many cars. It has a history and legacy of bicycles. Now that’s all gone. What we have is just another huge parking lot of China.

    • I really like what you said about Chengdu being unique and how it could’ve been the ‘Portland’ of China- that is, a paragon of sustainable transport and accommodating to the bicycle. I agree that capitalizing on Chengdu’s uniqueness was a total missed opportunity, but at the same time I am hesitant to be critical.

      This is because as an American, I feel it is somewhat hypocritical to criticize China’s newly found love affair with the personal automobile. In the U.S., driving is almost viewed as a God-given right, so who am I to say Chinese should not buy cars and drive. It would also be futile to do so as I am very aware the new Chinese middle class sees car ownership as huge step up in the socioeconomic ladder.

      What is interesting to note though is the fact that the pendulum appears to be swinging the other way in the U.S. More young Americans are shunning the car in favor or other forms of personal mobility and there are new mass transit projects popping up in cities across the country.

      I know the situation is different for young upwardly mobile Chinese: they can’t seem to give up the bike or get off the bus and into a new car fast enough.

      That being said, I do appreciate that Chinese cities are planning for the long-term when it comes to public transportation and are building extensive subway and rail lines so the option is there for people who can’t afford a car or do not want to own one.

      Furthermore, given the rapid trajectory of urbanization, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pendulum swung against driving sooner rather than later in China given the critical mass of auto traffic increasingly choking the country’s cities.

      Government policy can only do so much to abate traffic problems. In the end, it will take a shift in attitudes, namely the widely accepted idea that car ownership is a necessary purchase in order to be socially accepted into the higher order of Chinese social strata.

      • Adam, thanks for writing back. You are right. There’s nothing with younger people’s enthusiasm for cars. This is probably a global phenomenon, especially for the car-hungry middle class in developing countries. I observed that people around me care too much about their ‘faces’ and now owning a car is part of that equation, irrelevant of the fact that THEY DON’T REALLY NEED ONE. Admittedly the public transportation system isn’t perfect but it’s an efficient and convenient one compared to that in the States. Most people think it’s ‘face-losing’ to ride a bus. People care too much about how they are perceived by others. It appears to be a major reason contributing to the car ownership frenzy. On the other hand, the government isn’t doing enough. With the limited resources being consumed by drivers(roads, parking space, air pollution, )they simply sit around and allow so many cars to get on the road. And the only formula they’ve got is cutting down trees to build more roads! It’s simply not working. The government has to learn from modern cities like HK who have successfully tackled similar problems created by cars. That is to build powerful public transportation and make driving EXPENSIVE. The social cost of driving is huge and growing bigger by the day. It’s eroding Chengdu people’s living standards. Car owners ought to pay up, one way or another. In the end, people need to give up driving voluntarily.

      • Adam,

        You’re right, attitudes must change first. I don’t see that happening this generation though since the “personal car = success” mantra is ingrained so deeply into modern Chinese society. It’s similar to buying houses instead of renting: they say that Chinese men aren’t ready for marriage until they’ve proven their worth by owning an apartment and a car. I feel sorry for young Chinese who are beset with these incredible financial burdons not out of necessity but societal obligation. Especially in Chengdu where housing prices are through the roof and the roads are so jammed that car ownership couldn’t even be considered a convenience.

  8. @broke logic is a forte of mine. disincentives are mainly in the taxes and licensing – so not actual disincentives, just systemic hurdles. Some cities are instituting registration quotas, as in only X many cars within this certain area. People just register somewhere else, if that is what’s needed. Other ideas are, can only drive at certain times, certain areas, certain license plate number. But those are control mechs, not actual reasons not to buy a car. So they’re still trying to figure it out.


    I also put the link in the text. Rumor has it the State didn’t support the railway construction company that failed to build that highway because of the Wenzhou Train Crash and subsequent sacking of the minister (for having mad mistresses and tons of cash AND building shitty rail) .. they let the Poland thing fail instead of stepping in and subsidizing, which is what the State usually does to save face and keep projects from … de-railing

  9. This is an outstanding post, you nailed it.

    This morning I took a taxi to my office at 10:30 am and about the time that we were approaching the Rennan Lijiao Bridge, traffic completely stopped. The taxi driver sighed, started quietly cursing, then lit up a cigarette. We spoke for a few minutes about the traffic and he mentioned that he smokes a lot more now because of it.

    Now is a great time to become a bicycle commuter in Chengdu, traffic is really no joke here now. To get from Yulin to Chunxi Lu by taxi on Saturday afternoon can take 40-60 minutes. That’s for a journey of approximately 4 miles.

  10. The Chengdu Driver’s 高考:

    17. When the light starts to turn red at an intersection, what should you do?

    a. Brake gently and come to a stop at the lights.
    b. Drive into the intersection to block traffic turning from some other direction.
    c. Sound your horn.
    d. Nearly run some pedestrian over and then look baffled as to why they might be annoyed.

    From occasions when I sat in Starbucks in the Fortune Centre during the rush hour, b.) would appear to be the right answer.

    It took so long to get a taxi in Chengdu that I was grateful that I had a bike while I lived there.

  11. Good article. I live in Shanghai and when I first arrived here I hardly ever saw a private car. Now it seems like everyone has a car. Not sure if this is true, but I heard that 3000 new cars come on the road EVERY DAY in Shanghai. The cost of a number plate in this city seems to not stop people from buying cars.

    Ironically, as the number of subway lines increased in Shanghai so did the number of private cars.

    • I thought it was interesting and left a comment that actually touched on the content of the story. I know you wrote something intelligent and you are trying to get people to see it and comment, but the best way is to leave an intelligent comment – i’ll click on your name to see if there is more behind the comment.

      Just being like “dope post, peep mine!” doesn’t really get me interested.

      • I apologize that you thought I was being spammy, I thought the url was telling enough.

        I am not really trying to get anyone interested in reading mine, I just wanted to offer the author (1 person) a point of view on the problem. I didn’t comment on here to drive views. I don’t know that this site has any traffic, and I don’t know that the traffic would be relevant to my business.

        To some, brevity is a virtue.

        To others, brevity is a commenting faux-pas. To each his own.

        At any rate, I didn’t intend to offend anyone.

        • The URL is telling of nothing except that you published a blog post on a similar topic, and brevity is a non issue since your comment didn’t add to the conversation. It is poor etiquette to direct participants in this conversation to your own blog post without inputting anything here.

          • I am not a blogger, and am unaware of this secretive realm of blogger etiquette – I can do nothing but thank you for educating me.

            I came here with the honest intention of having an exchange of ideas with Sascha. I am not looking for comments (because I am not a blogger, and comments are completely irrelevant to why I wrote the post in the first place) and I am not looking for views.

            Personally, I think that you would spend this time rebuking me for my lacking etiquette is more telling than my lack of etiquette. I don’t know that it is better “etiquette to the direct participants in this conversation” to speak about blogging etiquette rather than the issue at hand.

            That being said, I will now remove myself from the blogging etiquette discussion.


            I thought your post was well-written, engaging, and with a lot of interesting facts that really help illustrate the point you are trying to make. Since you ended the post on a note of coal efficiency etc, I thought it relevant to offer you the point of view that the main concern might not be pollution – but the overall degradation of traffic itself, and all the deaths that it leads to.

            I personally believe that we need to spend more energy on educating people on proper driving behavior, building mass transport and infrastructure, rather than making sure people use electric cars.

            I argue for that in the post that I linked, and I would be interested hearing your criticism of it (the topic! I am not looking for education on how to blog).

            Perhaps the hammer sees every problem as a nail, but I see the most threatening part of the problem as behavior – not pollution.

        • @Adam @Charlie stay out of this. I made it clear what the deal was and that is enough, No need to pile on the man or call him names.

          I was not in the slightest bit offended, I was just trying to leave a friendly, helpful comment. I liked your take on Game Theory and Traffic and you can see what I have to say in your comment section, cheers.

  12. Here is a great couple of stories about Energy consumption in China. The first, from the Financial Times, talks about clean energy:

    “The world’s largest energy consumer can seem like a Mecca of clean energy development, with a level of state support and commercial enthusiasm for new technologies that is almost unparalleled. The world’s biggest consumer of coal, thanks to the policies of the past decade, is now the world’s biggest producer of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric batteries.”

    The second, from the New York Times, discusses China’s growing addiction to coal:

    “Global demand for coal is expected to grow to 8.9 billion tons by 2016 from 7.9 billion tons this year, with the bulk of new demand — about 700 million tons — coming from China, according to a Peabody Energy study. China is expected to add 240 gigawatts, the equivalent of adding about 160 new coal-fired plants to the 620 operating now, within four years. During that period, India will add an additional 70 gigawatts through more than 46 plants.”

  13. One thing about Chinese cities is that they all have ring roads and similar layouts. If they can find the most efficient layout for a city, they can probably apply it to all of the cities.

    What motivates people is money. If employers give financial incentives to workers to take public transportation, this could reduce the amount of traffic in Chinese cities.

    However, Chinese people will see cars as status symbols and a chance for them to improve their lives. So it will be unlikely that they will not seek to purchase cars.

    In terms of energy efficiency, again, money motivates people. Maybe the government could offer tax breaks or other financial incentives for people to purchase green cars. Maybe the government could subsidize the green auto industry to make their cars cheaper.

    Urban growth in China will undoubtedly increase in the years to come and bring many logistical challenges to infrastructure. Traffic jams will likely be long, and cumbersome but, like in any major city, comes with the terrain.


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