For the first time this year, China will be among the countries participating in global public transportation week. The week will bring a series of activities to encourage a sustainable morning commute in cities across the country, culminating in a car-free day, where cars will be banned on certain cities and roads, on September 22. China signing on is no small matter -- the government still does campaigns like no one else. The announcement came to me via an enthusiastic SMS.
Of course, it used to be that every week was green transportation week in China. Now the country's sturdy Forever bicycles have been eclipsed by cars. From 2000 to 2006, the number of cars on the road in China more than tripled, from 6 million to 20 million. One of the things about Beijing that impresses out-of-towners the most these days is the traffic - the city alone adds 1,000 cars a week. From a taxi, Beijing can look like a tangle of six- and eight-lane highways, extending out in seemingly interminable concentric rings.
Meanwhile, green transport now suffers from an image problem. Subways are only just tolerable. Buses are uncool. And biking has an even worse reputation. On an episode of a Chinese "Sex in the City" knockoff that aired a few years ago, a Beijing woman cuts off contact with a man she is dating after she spots him on a bike. The subtext: if he is on a bike, he must be poor.
The public transportation campaign suggests that officials recognize this problem, and the week of activities is a step toward remedying it. But this isn't the first time Beijing has taken cars off the road. After International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned last month that events at next year's Olympic Games might have to be postponed because of pollution, the city took over a million cars off the road in an Olympic test run. During 2006's Sino-African summit, Beijing reduced the traffic load by half a million cars by banning company- and government- vehicles. That the government designates public transportation days to boost environmental awareness is commendable. That it has to do the same in order to make air temporarily breathable for international events is a sign of poor city planning.
To truly tackle China's transport woes, China needs to rethink its long-term strategy. A few suggestions:
As long as cars remain affordable and China's urban infrastructure supports them, people will continue to buy them.
Image: Beijing traffic. Credit: flickr/Commutr