American drivers trapped in gridlock have it easy compared to commuters in China. Two weeks into the Chinese traffic jam, gridlock Friday on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway extended 19 miles. Road construction in Beijing has caused a pileup of vehicles on a road between the capital and the city of Zhangjiokou that is expected to continue at a crawl until the project is finished. At its worst, Tuesday traffic was inching along to the tune of less than a mile a day. Some drivers were caught in the traffic jam up to five days. China’s growing traffic jam problem can be traced to exploding demand for coal and the trucks to haul it, as well as the shipping required to meet the needs of a surging economy based on consumption.
Burgeoning economy creates conditions for traffic jams
Traffic jams are an accepted fact of life for Chinese drivers, but this Beijing traffic jam is unusually severe. The Wall Street Journal reports that road construction started the traffic jam Aug. 14 in China’s Heibei Province on a major highway leading to Beijing. Accidents and breakdowns exacerbated the gridlock. Highway officials say the traffic jam could persist for a month because the road project isn’t expected to be finished until then. Gridlock on this highway has become the norm as the capital city’s population of 20 million consumes more goods.
Coal demand clogs freight routes
China’s economy, the fastest-growing in the world, generates a huge demand for coal to produce electricity. The increasing number of trucks shipping that coal is a principal cause of the traffic jam problem. Bloomberg reports that Inner Mongolia, a huge border province northwest of Beijing, surpassed Shanxi province last year to become China’s biggest coal supplier. An epidemic of mining accidents in Shanxi, an established coal-producing region with extensive railway transportation, led to a mass closure of mines by the government. Inner Mongolia currently lacks the railway capacity to carry the hundreds of millions of tons of coal it produces. To ship the coal to power plants in southern China, suppliers have no choice but to truck their cargo through Beijing to port cities.
Supply and demand is a universal law
Motorists were resigned to their fates. For the most part everyone remained calm. Anger and violence have been nonexistent, NPR reports, while sidelined drivers played cards and chess, took walks or just tried to sleep through it. Local villagers, zigzagging between vehicles on bikes, reaped a windfall selling noodles, box lunches and snacks. The law of supply and demand was the rule as capitalism infiltrated the communist system. Drivers complained about price-gouging by villagers who became their sole source for food and water. A bottle of water usually goes for 1 yuan, or 15 cents. Traffic jam vendors sold them for 10 yuan, or $1.50. Instant noodles that cost 3 yuan (45 cents) in the store were going for three times that.