Solving Beijing’s “Traffic & Weather” Mess

18:13 (UTC+08:00), 28 FEB 2014 | CHN BEIJING

Blue Skies Beijing

As someone who’s been in Beijing for 14+ years, I’ve seen it all. When I was born back in the 1980s, the skies were fair. Back in the early 2000s, they were worse, yes, but not to the extent that you got smog day in, day out. On 27 February 2014 we had our sunniest day yet so far, and yet just a day later we get more and more grey.

I’m no certified scientific professional in all this, but from the commoner’s point of view, given my mileage and seeing how other cities got it right, I think the city of Beijing needs a serious change to the way things work. For smog to go, we need smarter city management — in particular when it comes to getting from A to B. Here are just some of my ideas…

  1. Build orbital expressways and highways around both Beijing (and ideally Tianjin as well). The only way to keep those huge lorries with potentially polluting elements away from the city is to divert them away. But don’t build it like National Highway 112 (the G112), which is a full loop. Instead, what we’re looking at is a complex web of expressways and highways that form part of major national routes whilst also coming together as a ring of sorts. Ideally, make them mostly for freight traffic, so that regular commuters and the average traveller won’t have to put up with “running elephants”. Make these new access routes serve an extra purpose: making it easier for urbanites to pick different cities so that you spread out the population — compressing them all into a central hub is going to be too much. “Use up” surrounding cities as much as possible. Get resources into other cities; don’t hog it all up, Beijing (and I’m especially looking at the universities — spread out! if you’re not super-important key universities a la PKU / Tsinghua).
  2. Build more freight routes for rail traffic. I don’t mean you should dump the highway system — there will be villages (eg Maoshan, the northernmost village in the municipality of Beijing) where it’ll be a tough job getting trains into the place. Or maybe those tiny villages by Municipal Highway 308 in Huairou, northern rural Beijing, need access to the outside world — honestly, anyone who builds a railway that follows the route of that particular stretch of highway deserves something better than Nobel prizes might offer. But for long stretches, we need more freight routes. The Datong-Qinhuangdao Railway works great as it brings all that great load of coal to the port of Qinhuangdao (but it also needs to do something more productive to these trains carrying nearly nothing back to Datong). We should look at more freight routes connecting to the rest of the national rail network.

    OK, so now you’ve got all that transit traffic done with. What next? Fix problems in the city itself…

  3. Make cars the stuff that you drive at a price. Don’t offer subsidies to public individuals (mayors, directors, but also university professors and the like) who drive (but also don’t penalise them). Implement reserved access lanes that go double for public individuals as well (I’ve seen too many off-duty army vehicles “steal” the bus lane on Chang’an Avenue!). Slap or increase a tax for cars — don’t make people feel bad they’ve bought a car, but also don’t make people feel — great stuff, I’ve a car now, so vrrrrroooommm!… I can pollute away at will…
  4. Implement “smart” congestion charging. Be flexible. Implement weekly, monthly and quarterly discount cards, and give registered residents and especially users of alternative energy vehicles generous discounts. Start charging within the rings (yes, start from the 6th Ring); progressively increase the ring charges as you go inside the rings. Make exceptions for transit tunnels (start thinking about these), so if you use one of these from the Eastern 3rd Ring straight to the Western 3rd Ring (without going on the ringways), you’re charged no extra fees for going inside the 3rd Ring.
  5. Dump the licence plate lottery for cars and motorbikes. Implement a system where you bid for your plates. Yes, it’s not politically easy to do this in the capital, but the current lottery system is a mess.
  6. Offer flexible fares for public transport. Implement discounts for early bird travellers (before 06:30), during the day (09:30 – 15:30), and in the late evening (22:00 till end of services). Charge passengers by distance; scrap the city flat fare system. Implement a CNY 1.— charge for transit card users entering and exiting at the same station 10 minutes within entry (so that you can use underground space for getting around, thereby alleviating above-ground traffic). Expand the Subway network; don’t ever stop until we get at least 1,500 km of city rail transit (we seriously need this; this is a city of millions and millions!).
  7. Create a Subway Frequent Traveller programme. This is probably less about earning points and more so that you can use express lanes in future to zip past security. Since they already have your ID details, chances are that even if you wanted to blow things up underground, there’s basically no way to do that undetected. (Right now security checks are intensified on some routes and stations, but are basically reduced to near-nothingness during rush hour. What if Passenger X carried dangerous articles, but only showed inspectors a laptop or some plush toy and not the dangerous item itself?)
  8. Fully develop New Towns. Create mini-CBDs so that suburbanites see less need to get into central Beijing. (You might want to do that for a tuhao LVHM-inspired shopping bonanza, but there’ll be less incentive to travel the ten full miles to the Guomao CBD from the eastern suburbs if all you wanted was the kind of Cappuccino you can get only from the Starbucks.)
  9. Worship suburban rail as your Transit God. Build intercity trunk lines to nearby satellite towns such as Zhuozhou and Langfang — new lines that call also at major settlements enroute. For suburbs and rural counties within the municipality of Beijing, build suburban rail (at 200-250 km/h standards) so that express commuter trains can travel during the daytime, whilst overnight you can also do freight trains. Link all districts with both rail and highways.
  10. Complete the existing expressway network. Right now the new (2nd) Airport Expressway terminates halfway at the interchange with Yaojiayuan Road. That’s not where it’s supposed to end. Extend this until at least the new expressway to Tianjin — what if Tianjin’s airport is locked out due to low-lying fog? (You might get passengers diverted to Beijing airport; and this is not impossible!) Complete the entire expressway network (including dedicated routes reserved mainly for freight traffic).

That’s a fair mouthful, eh? We might want to get start on this as soon as we can. Beijing right now is supposedly an Alpha+ Global City. Nobody wants the capital of the next (hype) superpower to be a place of death and destruction when it comes to the most basic exercise for all of humanity — inhaling and exhaling…