The Ten Day Traffic Jam

Post by Steven Dale

Last week, a variety of news outlets (Associated PressCBCNew York TimesThe Drudge Retort and dozens of others) reported on a massive 100 km long traffic jam outside Beijing, China. The jam lasted ten days and stretched into Inner Mongolia only to ‘vanish’ seemingly overnight.

Of all the reports on this story, the one that caught my eye was from The Globe & Mail. In the article, they quote the mayor of Beijing via government report saying “getting people out of their cars has not been easy. Last year the rate of people who took public transportation for their daily commute in Beijing was only 38 per cent.”

According to the article, Beijing’s road network is virtually over capacity or will be by 2015 and despite having the worst “commuter pain” of all major cities in the world, new car registrations are up 23.8% over last year.

And yet, Bejing has a massive public transportation system that includes subways, buses and suburban commuter lines.

The Beijing Subway Network. Image by Wikipedia user Ran.

In other words: Despite having an incredibly useful public transit system and ridiculously bad traffic congestion, transit is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of commuters. While it’s no where near as bad as in North American cities, it’s certainly surprising that transit gets such a small share.

Two months ago I wrote a post called Form vs. Function. In it, I questioned Jarrett Walker’s assertions (here, here and here) that function and ‘Usefulness’ (his word) are all that matter when trying to lure people into using transit. I argued that transit, as is currently designed, doesn’t create ridership as much as we might like to believe. Even cities with ‘Useful’ transit systems still do not attract the majority of commuters that the private automobile does.

In Beijing, we’re seeing that very phenomenon on display because mode choice isn’t always a function of logic or Usefulness, it’s also a function of emotion, ego and pleasure.

The private automobile, remember, is as much status symbol as it is a means of getting around. They are also undeniably more pleasant to ride than public transit. Public transit, after all, doesn’t even offer you a cup holder, let alone seat warmers, surround sound systems and GPS.

According to Jarrett’s Usefulness theory, people in Beijing should be streaming away from car ownership because car ownership is clearly not Useful – as evidenced by said 10 day traffic jam. In a city like Beijing, the private automobile doesn’t display Usefulness, instead it’s Uselessness personified.

And yet people are flocking to it.

Beijing disproves Jarrett’s Usefulness theory and suggests that something other than the harsh light of utilitarianism is necessary to lure people to transit. As I see it, it’s the design of public transit that matters. The quality of the ride matters as much if not more than the Usefulness of the system.

After all, the quality of a ride in a car is apparently so much better, tens of thousands of Beijing residents would rather sit in their private car in a 100 km long traffic jam than ride the train or bus. For those people (and the increasing number of car owners in Beijing), it’s not a matter of Usefulness or function, it’s a matter of form, style, comfort and pleasure.

Or maybe we’ll all just be saved by The Chinese Tunnel Bus™.

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  1. As I see it, the whole transportation system should be as direct as going on your own (by car, bike and else) and as available as those. Which implicates a sustainable network, fully developed like the road infrastructure we use (but free, safe and empty) and very short ways to reach the point to enter. All in all together for the individual: Avoid stops, changing of lines, wait times and long distances to reach and exit. Create high speed travel times, direct connection and at its best personalised "way of travelling" (like cabins, own seat or else). Additional features: I think there's nothing I missed, except for being (maybe) very cheap, ecological and comfortable. Question: how would this form of transportation look alike?
  2. That mega jam mostly affected trucks. It could be bypassed by simply using a parallel toll road. Public mass transit and subways is a relative new thing in China and many cities are building a lot of new lines. The more lines are in place the more appealing will it be. And a car is a status symbol see Singapore where owning a car does not make much sense and is discouraged by the government by huge taxes, road pricing and other costs. The real loser in China are the bicycles. Few decades ago everybody rode a bicycle in most cities it is now too dangerous to do so. One car needs l a lot more space than a bicycle. Thus if only ten percent of the cyclist switch to car there is a massive problem
  3. It's not completely new to Beijing. There is a german article from 2007 about that occurance. ( http://www.spiegel.de/reise/fernweh/0,1518,509135,00.html ) A parallel line: Dubai was faced with the same problems until around 2007 or 2008. In November 2008 I was in Dubai for a project for a longer period and had some conversations with expats about that issue. There are workers which bought old cars, which were sorted out by their former owners (due to their financial options). Cheap and old buses were also used to drive labours from their dorms to work. Those old vehicles caused jams and accidents which of course influenced the whole development of the city (chain reaction). Trucks for instance reached their destination very late or never (i.e. fluid concrete becomes useless after a specific time - so the driver can return to the factory directly) or people couldn't be in time at their appointments. The same happens to some of those old trucks on their way to Beijing (especially uphill) and has an impact to the following. So the municipality of Dubai made some new rules: "The following types of vehicles are banned from these dates. From January 1, 2009 ... * cars older than 20 years * Import of cars older than 5 years * Import of heavy vehicles older than 7 years * Taxis older than 5 years * Ownership transfer of light vehicles older than 10 years From January 1, 2010 ... * cars older than 15 years" (source: http://www.the-ace.org.uk/dubai-bans-old-cars.html ) As I told earlier they started those rules at around 07/08. Already during that time traffic actually became better, although driving skills of some people remained beyond all known imagination. Another regulation of the infrastucture in transportation is the Dubai Metro which is running since late 2009. There were rumours the government paid the commuting labours to use it and unfortunately I don't know how popular the metro is nowadays. But it connects almost all of the most important parts of the city, which is a good thing - but they should have had that infrastructure much earlier. One last point regarding Beijing: I think I read somewhere that food and especially meat takes often half a week and more to enter Beijing by truck. Caused by the massive demand of that mega city the sources of supply can not only be located near to it. A huge infrastructure all over China is necessary to keep that moloch ticking.
  4. LX, And that's really the challenge. What would this transportation look like? The PRT people seem to think that's the way, and maybe they're right, but I don't think so. I feel it would look multi-modal and be integrated with a philosophy of urban design that privileges walking and cycling. It should be nodal. That is, clusters of easy to navigate neighborhoods accessible by foot, bike or inexpensive feeder/circulator systems (like a gondola, for example :) ). Those nodes/neighborhoods would then be connected to one another by high speed heavy and/or light rail connections. No more of this 20 km long tram line with stops every 500 metres.
  5. "The private automobile, remember, is as much status symbol as it is a means of getting around. They are also undeniably more pleasant to ride than public transit. Public transit, after all, doesn’t even offer you a cup holder, let alone seat warmers, surround sound systems and GPS." The "status" of the automobile is culturally determined, and differs from place to place. In China it's very high - the automobile is seen as a "right" to which the Chinese people have been long denied. But in Denmark or the Netherlands it is bicycles that are the status symbols. And in many parts of the world the public transport is much more pleasant to ride than the private automobile. Even here in Sydney, where the public transport is very average, I find it more comfortable/luxurious than dealing with traffic. Perhaps the explosion in car use in China might also come from their land-use policies. If they're building sprawling factories on the outskirts of their cities with no public transport in those place, then of course automobile use will rise. One the transit system loses its compehensiveness , alternatives such as cars will rush in to displace it.
  6. Adrian, I don't believe I've ever seen a comment from you on The Gondola Project (though I could be wrong), so please accept my welcome to the community! Great to have you involved! I do agree with you that the "status" of the private automobile is culturally determined. The point I was trying to make in my post was to say that looking purely at the issue of what Jarrett calls "Usefulness" is an inaccurate way to look at how people choose modes of transit. I think your point only reinforces that argument. The way we choose to travel is tied up in all sorts of cultural, emotional, societal and economical baggage that simply cannot be summed up by "Usefulness." Again: Welcome to The Gondola Project and feel free to comment, argue, discuss and make your voice heard.
  7. Are you and Jarrett that far apart? People have multiple, overlapping goals. For example, they want to get from A to B, but they also want to project themselves as having "status". Their mode of transport can be *useful* for both.
  8. I don't think Jarrett is arguing that culture doesn't have a big impact on ridership, just that it is less permanent. Cars are a status symbol in China especially now, when until recently hardly anyone had them. Will this stay true 30 years from now when most people can own a car if they really want to and traffic is still terrible? Not necessarily. But the metro will still be there. And if it has a physical problem - say, stops are too closely spaced and it's slow, that problem will likely remain. A point I'd add is that cultural problems and psychological problems may have cultural or psychological solutions. Have a service that people really would find useful if they would try it? That's what advertisement is for. Do people perceive wait times for transit as longer than they really are? Turns out installing signs saying how soon the next train or bus is coming reduce the perceived wait a lot. Cities as dense as Beijing just don't work without transit. The indispensibility of the metro and nightmarish traffic will over time (not overnight) change the culture. The laws of traffic won't change to suit the culture. On a side note, you really need not be at odds with Jarrett, after all there are a lot of good arguments for gondolas that fall in the geometry category. And like all elevated transit they're very susceptible to NIMBYism. But then like all unconventional transit they come across as visionary.
  9. Adrian, I don't think Jarrett and I are that far apart. I just tend to believe form and function are equally important. Jarrett seems to feel that function trumps all. It's that which I have a problem with. I just don't believe that merely painting a bus a different colour and putting it in a dedicated right of way will fool people into saying "oh yeah, that's not a bus, I want to ride that!"
  10. Eric, You make lots of great points. The most important I think is when you say "have a service that people really would find useful if they would try it". I think you're completely right. The question then is: How do you get them to try it? This is where innovative design, beauty, convenience and fun come in. You have to give people a reason to want to try it.
  11. PRT: Consider how people circulate in a parking lot looking for a slightly closer spot, how people go so far to avoid walking an extra 50 feet... I don't think even PRT will provide the convenience of an automobile. It will still fail to beat the car. Also if the car has become a status symbol, it's going to take a wholesale shift in cultural perceptions for transit to be 'cool'. I can't see that happening in a country where large amounts of people are getting to the point where they can afford a car. They're all going to want one. Sorry for the negativity :p
  12. Jeff, I don't think you're being negative, I think you're being very practical. I think the question of how to make transit "cool" is so essential. It's just a shame that none of our existing models think to consider the "coolness" factor of our transit.
  13. @Jeff and Steven: just give them one killer-option that no other transportation can provide. Just a hint: I live in a city with a population of 700.000. A huge train station is a 7 minutes walk away. I got a connection to the urban LRT about 3 minutes away from my home. I own a car. The controversy: When I'm going to visit my hometown which is around 400 km away I don't use the train. Train would provide me even a faster trip or at least the same time. I would have to switch once and I could read, work or sleep during that trip. Reason: the costs. The trip is cheaper right now going by car than using public transportation. Especially if an additional person is joining. That's different in other countries - but right now here in Germany I'm not worried about future, when oil will be gone and you couldn't effort a car. I think costs are going to change within the next 30 years. The LRT: Going for 3 stations to work I'd rather use my feet. Will change my mind, when it is raining heavily. Time almost equals on both situations. Further than 3 stations it really makes sense to use the LRT. But like 2/3 of all those trips I would rather go by car - reason: buying food, material for work or go for sports. "It will still fail to beat the car." I agree with you. As a status symbol you want to own a car. Everybody has one, right? To use one though there are other reasons. Being covered, carrying loads from A to B. But for all the other situations it is easy to promote a good working tool. Make it as fast and cheap as a car is.
  14. If owning a car is such a status symbol to so many people, what can be done to make people feel like they own the bus, train or gondola they are travelling on? I realize that transit companies try to get people to take pride in their system. Here in Vancouver, we have to take out of town visitors on the SkyTrain and Seabus, we are proud of them and we love to show them off. Pride is a start but what can be done to make people feel like they truly own the bus they are riding in? Would selling shares help public transit? With the advent of smart cards, could people be rewarded for taking transit by giving them the opportunity to by shares at a reduced rate based on ridership? Could seats be "sold" to individuals so they would display a small plaque "this seat was made possible by "Steven Dale"?
  15. @ Sean, "what can be done to make people feel like they truly own the bus they are riding in?" I think at the end of the day you have to give people something that improves their lives, full stop. For example I love and treasure my apple computer(s) because they make my life easier - and they don't ask anything of me. They don't demand any sort of sacrifice (except for that whole iPad/flash debacle). Current transit thinking doesn't look at it that way. Current transit thinking says people have to rationally sacrifice time/comfort/money for a sub-par product simply because it's "good for you and your city" - whatever that means. Basically transit thinking is self-centered and self-absorbed. Users don't get as much as they should, but they're expected to give a lot back. Flip around that arrangement, and then people will take ownership, guaranteed.
  16. A little update: Since the Olympics in Beijing 2008 the authorities decided to put in one rule. You have even and uneven numbers in the end of your licence plate and one day all cars with even numbers are allowed to drive and the other day the uneven ones. Just a few minutes ago I saw a small documentary about the traffic problems in that mega city. Anyway: there it is a status symbol and for buying a car the buyer got a special finance to support that deal by the government. In january 2011 that deal wasn't anymore and it was also decided to set a maximum of 22.000/month for new cars to register. Before around 2.000 cars were registered for the first time daily. I wonder if that will solve the problem - but the speaker said: it already got a little less traffic (he also added 5 new lines of the subway system were added on first of january). In the end the speaker also gave a critical announcement: in Germany half of all rides by car are less then 5 km. He also suggested using bicycles and to think about that fact. And another true story: I have a friend who owns a car (Ford Mondeo with Diesel fuel) which is 10 years old and german government decided to categorize cars using diesel by three colours. Red, Orange and Green. That cars marked colour is red and isn't allowed to enter some cities in order to reduce the particulates in those cities. What I wonder is if something really changed - for the better of course ;)
  17. I've heard of this even and odd license plate thing. Always wondered if that just led people to own twice as many cars, or what would happen if you were always trying to meet up with someone with the opposite plate as you Problem with the car registration thing is that you also need all the enforcement to make sure unregistered cars aren't driving. I could see people just risking it...
  18. Or people changing license plates. Same questions over here.

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