July 12, 2005
By HOWARD W. FRENCH – Copyright The New York Times
SHANGHAI, July 9 – When officials drew up the blueprints for the redesign of this city in the early 1980’s, nary a skyscraper punctuated the low-slung horizon, whose buildings mostly dated from the decades of Western control early in the last century.
The hugely ambitious plans called for Shanghai to be built anew. And among the top priorities in a city previously dominated by bicycles was avoiding the most common plagues of the automobile age – unmanageable traffic and unbearable pollution.
To that end, enormous sums were spent on spectacular bridges, elevated highways and a brand-new subway system. But today, glance out the window of one of this city’s 3,000 high-rises around 6 p.m., when snarling masses of horn-honking cars tend to congeal in gridlock, and it is hard to escape the impression that Shanghai, at least for now, is losing its bet.
As people in this richest of Chinese cities have grown more and more affluent, they have displayed an American-style passion for the automobile. But for Shanghai, as for much of China, getting rich and growing attached to cars have increasingly gone hand in hand, and have produced side effects familiar in cities that have long been addicted to automobiles – from filthy air and stressful, marathon commutes to sharply rising oil consumption.
China accounts for about 12 percent of the world’s energy demand, but its consumption is growing at more than four times the global rate, sending Chinese oil company executives on an increasingly frantic search for overseas supplies. The country’s top environmental officials have warned of ecological and economic doom if China continues to follow this pattern. But in cities like Shanghai, where automobiles account for 70 percent to 80 percent of air pollution, nothing seems capable of stopping, or even slowing, the rapid rise of a car culture.
This is not for lack of trying. In one attempt to slow the growth of automobile traffic, the city has raised the fees for car registrations every year since 2000, doubling them over that time to about $4,600 per vehicle – more than twice the city’s per capita income. Many drivers illegally register their cars in other cities, where the fees are much lower, and the result is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with the traffic police.
The traffic efforts have been coupled with a major expansion of the public transportation system, which comprises gleaming new subways and the world’s fastest train, a magnetic levitation vehicle that zips to the airport in under 10 minutes.
The steep growth in automobile traffic here, however, seems to mock the city’s efforts. The original blueprints for a major expansion of Shanghai’s road network, drawn up two decades ago, predicted that Shanghai would pass the threshold of two million cars in 2020. In fact, that figure was reached last November.
“The estimates we made 20 years ago have been proven wrong,” said Li Junhao, chief engineer of the city’s Urban Planning Administration Bureau, in something of an understatement. “The development of Shanghai has been beyond our imagination.”
Even interim traffic estimates here have fallen far short. Two years ago, the city government rushed orders for the construction of a new, elevated loop expressway for central Shanghai, because other elevated expressways were already saturated at peak hours. “Just one year after some roads were completed, they reached vehicle flow volumes that were forecast for 15 to 20 years from now,” said Yang Dongyuan, a professor at the School of Transportation Engineering and vice president of Tongji University.
Meanwhile, the city is expanding its subway grid well beyond the 310 miles of track first planned. Two new lines are being added to the original 15, along with another 192 miles of track. Even so, the subway system, gleaming and clean though it is, is one area where traffic has failed to meet projections, with less than half the expected ridership on some lines. The reason, experts say, is that there are not enough trains, resulting in overcrowding, which further encourages people to ride in cars.
To be sure, Shanghai’s failure to master the challenge of the automobile reflects a mixture of forces, both economic and cultural. Foremost is the city’s economic performance, which has been fast even by Chinese standards, and has outstripped even the most optimistic projections.
Add to this a flourishing consumer culture that equates car ownership, however costly, with personal freedom, prestige and success.
In this regard, Yu Qiang, a 31-year-old salesman, is a model citizen of sorts. Mr. Yu spent more than $20,000 last year to buy his first car, a Chinese-made Buick, so that he could drive to work each morning instead of relying on public transportation.
Because of heavy traffic, the seven-mile commute usually takes a full hour. It includes dropping his 5-year-old son off at kindergarten and his wife, who teaches, at her school.
“A new subway line will be completed to my neighborhood later this year, and I’m hoping many other people will ride it so that the traffic will get better,” Mr. Yu said. “I’ll keep driving my car, though. It’s more comfortable because I can listen to music, use the air-conditioner, and it’s not crowded.”
Mr. Yu then made a comment that sounded like a city planner’s nightmare and a car salesman’s dream. “In China everybody wants to have a car, and I’m just one of them,” he said. “We think of it as changing our lives.” As for the traffic implications, he added, smiling, “The government has a lot to do to improve the traffic, and I believe they will do it.”