From the kingdom of bicycles to the Automobile Age

China has joined the Automobile Age, relegating the name “Kingdom of Bicycles” to history. Over the past years, the number of motor vehicles has increased dramatically. Cars have replaced bicycles as the first choice for travel for chinese urban residents.

Automobile Age in China

Confucius Institute Reporter
Sun Ying
本刊记者 孙颖
Shi Cha Hai is one of the oldest areas in Beijing, where you can see old buildings, winding hutongs, and old Beijing natives who grew up with the cries of street vendors. 64-year-old Grandpa Wang is one of those who has lived in Shi Cha Hai since he was born. He says Shi Cha Hai is quite different from the time when he was a child.

“There used to be dusty roads in this area and not many vehicles.” Grandpa said. Now the narrow dusty lanes have long ago been covered with asphalt roads five or six meters wide and automobiles pass by every two or three minutes. In the hutongs around Shi Cha Hai, all the available parking space is occupied by all kinds of cars. The change of Shi Cha Hai is just an example of those occurring throughout the country.

Automobile Age in China
The night scene of Guangdong Province. Motor vehicles have become indispensable in Chinese cities.

The revolution of four wheels and road construction

For those who were in China at the end of 1970s, the scene of the huge flow of bicycles was deeply imprinted in their minds. During rush hours every day, bicycles were everywhere, vegetables hanging from the handlebars, children picked up from school sitting on the back seat. People on foot mingled in the traffic flow and moved slowly with it. At every intersection some left and others joined, just like a stream always flowing forward.

Today on the streets of Beijing, all that can be seen are cars running to and fro. At peak time, they are lined up one after another crowding all the streets and bridges in Beijing, with red taillights forming two long lines. The splendor of the bicycle parade is now history.

“When I drove in the city of Beijing in 1980s, there were few cars on the Second Ring Road“said Grandpa Wang. But today the Second Ring Road has become one of the most congested roads in Beijing. Over the past dozen years, the number of motor vehicles has increased dramatically. Cars have replaced bicycles as the first choice for travel for urban residents. By the end of October, 2010, the number of motor vehicles in China reached 200 million, among which 87.62 million were cars. Obviously China has joined the Automobile Age, relegating the name “Kingdom of Bicycles” to history.

Today on the streets of Beijing, all that can be seen are cars running to and fro. At peak time, they are lined up one after another crowding all the streets and bridges in Beijing, with red taillights forming two long lines. The splendor of the bicycle parade is now history.

Cars can’t run without roads. In most regions in China, people are better off and more and more have cars. But building roads is considered the first step towards prosperity in some remote mountain areas where a widespread slogan is “To become well off, first build roads”. As a result, roads and bridges have been built on a large scale both in rising cities or remote villages. In 1978 the total mileage of Chinese roads was only 1,235, 000 kilometers, but by the end of 2007 it has increased by three times, reaching 4,561,000 kilometers.

In historic cities like Beijing, the city walls that used to ring the old city were long ago pulled down to make way for the Second Ring Road. As for the old gate towers of Beijing, most of them are gone with just their names remaining “Xi Zhi Men”, “Dong Zhi Men”, but there are still several well preserved gate towers surrounded by cloverleaf intersections, thousands of cars detouring round them every day. Both the hutongs in the north of China and the alleys in the south are either widened into broad streets or otherwise made accessible to the automobile.

These old cities and towns have been modified so as to be accessible to the automobile. But tradition never compromises. Its influence is much greater than imagined, as we can see wherever they are.

Automobile Age in China

The traditional logic behind driving a car

China has a population of more than 1.3 billion and the Chinese people have more or less gotten used to congestion of all kinds. In the past, they became used to lining up for scarce commodities and standing close to each other in the line. People’s “personal space” was not so great an issue for them.

This attitude continues even now when people have their own cars. Each car follows closely behind the car ahead as if a gap between two cars was unbearable. In the same way, motorists continue using techniques they used when standing in a line so as to achieve their aims, such as passing in the emergency vehicle lane, frequently changing lanes – just like people “jumping the queue”.

Chinese prefer being implicit to being explicit. Sometimes they communicate just by eye contact and body language. This is also true when they drive. When a motorist wants to make a turn, he may not use the turn signal as stipulated by the traffic regulations; instead, he shows his intention by the “body language” of the car, like switching to the rightmost lane, or trying to squeeze slowing along the center line between two cars in their lanes. In this way other motorists come to understand what he is intending to do.

In the past, people’s “personal space” was not so great an issue for the chineses. This attitude continues even now when people have their own cars. Each car follows closely behind the car ahead as if a gap between two cars was unbearable.

Mr. Wu, who has lived in Australia for four or five years, thinks that the way Chinese drive is very interesting. “Although people drive without obedience to the traffic regulations, they can understand each other.” For example, the rule is that cars leaving the main road for the side road have traffic priority over cars on the side road. But in reality it is not so. It is fascinating to Mr. Wu that drivers of two cars which are bound to crash can reach an agreement in the last second when one of them makes a concession; as for which car makes concession, there is no specific rule to follow. “If it were in Australia and people drove like that, cars would definitely collide. But it is strange that it doesn’t happen in China.” Mr. Wu said.

Things like these baffle foreigners, but they are commonplace for Chinese. In this rapidly developing country, anything can happen. The automobile have been greatly changing people’s lives in cities and towns, but at the same time they have brought new troubles.

Automobile Age in China

A dilemma: travelling by car in congested traffic or using crowded public transport

It is common for people in Beijing to be stuck in traffic congestion twice daily on weekdays. If it rains, snows, or there is some other bad weather, traffic congestion can be even worse. Mr. Zheng, a taxi driver, clearly remembers August 14th last year — the most congested day he ever experienced. He said, “It was so congested that my car barely budged for 40 minutes.” By December 22nd, 2010, there were 791,000 new cars in Beijing. In the first half of 2010 alone, the increased number of new automobiles in Beijing was equivalent of the total number of automobiles in Shijiazhuang (capital city of Hebei Province).

It is a difficult journey for motorists, it is also not easier for people using public transportation. The number of automobiles has increased drastically, as has the city population. As a result, cities become more and more congested.

Miss Fang, an employee in Shanghai, commutes by subway, but the challenge that she faces every day is whether or not she can actually get into the subway train. She once joked, “There are two advantages in taking the subway during rush hours. One is that you won’t fall down even if you don’t hold on to anything because the train is so packed that it is impossible for you to fall down. The other advantage is that you don’t need to walk when getting on or off the subway because crowds of passengers push you onto and off the train.”

The seemingly joking words reflect the real situation of the traveling inconvenience in the city. What is more worrisome is that the same problem troubling tier-one cities is now spread to tier-two and three cities. Be in a provincial capital city like Chengdu and Taiyuan or a smaller county town, the traffic problems have become increasingly severe.

To ease congestion, Beijing adopted a vehicle-use restriction rule in 2008 based on the last digit of the license plate number. Recently the Beijing city government took a more drastic measure requiring potential car buyers to obtain car plates by a lottery system before they can buy a car.

The traffic situation in China is not unusual. Gilbert Van Kerckhove, a Belgian transportation expert living in Beijing, pointed out that traffic congestion in urban areas is a worldwide problem. In the 1940s most cities in the U.S. and Europe went through such a process starting with constructing roads and bridges on a large scale, developing rail transport Lifestyle systems, adopting transportation-demand management methods like economic guidance, then ended up advocating “green” travel alternatives like cycling.

Many measures have been adopted by the government to improve the automobile situation in cities with heavy traffic. For example, to ease congestion, Beijing adopted a vehicle-use restriction rule in 2008 based on the last digit of the license plate number. Recently the Beijing city government took a more drastic measure requiring potential car buyers to obtain car plates by a lottery system before they can buy a car.

Additionally, government has been improving infrastructure — road construction and public transport, which has also been included in the next five-year development plan. Beijing’s first micro-circulatory bus routes have been set up from residential areas to subway stations as of the end of last March. According to the Beijing government’s plan, urban rail transport system mileage will reach 561 km by the year of 2015, and it will be possible for residents living within the Fourth Ring Road walk no more than 1,000 meters on average to get to the nearest subway station. More and more urban dwellers are making changes too — taking public transport and automobile-pooling; old fashioned cycling will be the “green” option for people who want to get out.

KNOWLEDGE LINKS

Automobile Age in China

SEDAN CHAIRS

Sedan chairs first came into use in the early Xia Dynasty, the 21st Century B.C. With a history of more than 4,000 years, it was a common means of transportation used by families of officials.

Automobile Age in China

ANIMAL DRAWN CARRIAGES AND WAGONS

Originating in the Euphrates and Tigris Valley in the Western Asia in the 30th Century B.C, carriages were introduced into China in the late Shang Dynasty (1765-1122 BC). Even today carriages are still used in some areas in China.

Automobile Age in China

RICKSHAWS

Rickshaws are a man-powered, two-wheeled conveyances that originated in Japan, also called jinrikisha [人(rén)(lì)(chē) or(dōng)(yáng)(chē)]. Today cycle rickshaws and motorized rickshaws are mainly used to take tourists through narrow hutong lanes.


Confucius Institute Magazine 14

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 14. Volume 3. May 2011.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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