Heavy Traffic Ahead: Car Culture Accelerates

By Dahl, Richard | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Heavy Traffic Ahead: Car Culture Accelerates


Dahl, Richard, Environmental Health Perspectives


As the world's largest nation, China is drawing a lot of attention for its increased motorization rates. Although Chinas rate of automobile ownership is low by the standards of the developed world, it is increasing at a very fast rate. Between the late 1970s and 2001, Chinas overall fleet of motor vehicles other than two-wheelers increased 10-fold, according to an article in the 3 December 2003 issue of Energy far Sustainable Development.

Along the way, the Chinese government decided it wanted to develop its own auto industry. In 2001 China identified auto manufacturing as one of seven "pillar industries" of the Chinese economy and announced a five-year plan to implement a primarily domestic industry that could offer a Chinese family car at a price that would encourage widespread ownership. Between 2000 and 2004, production of passenger cars in China jumped from 605,000 to 2.33 million. On 5 February 2005, the China Federation of Machinery Industry, an industry association, forecast 20% growth for 2005 to a level that would move China past Germany into third place globally for motor vehicle production. Most industry analysts believe that the industry will continue to expand in the 15% range annually for years to come. The government has also encouraged private investments in highways to fuel a highway-building program that was already well under way. In October 2004, Chinas Ministry of Communication announced that the nation's freeways had reached 30,000 kilometers, placing it behind only the United States. Up till now, a large portion of these roads had been toll roads.

China may be getting the lion's share of the attention, but people who follow international transportation issues say the trend in motorization is global. According to Daniel Sperling, a professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, and director of its Institute of Transportation Studies, motorization is soaring everywhere, with the fastest growth occurring in Asia and Latin America. He says that the number of motor vehicles other than two-wheelers in the world is expected to double in the next 15 years to 1.3 billion.

"The reason motorization is spreading so rapidly is that people value mobility," Sperling says. "But it's also happening because a lot of regions are growing economically. We use the rule of thumb that motorization takes off when per capita incomes reach about $5,000. And many parts of the world--many cities in China, for instance--have reached that level."

Michael P. Walsh, a transportation and environmental consultant to governments in China and other developing countries, and author of the Energy for Sustainable Development article, believes there's another explanation. "Everybody, it seems to me, wants to follow the American model," he says. "We're held up as the country to emulate. It's an image that people have. If you're a modern country, you need to have lots of privately owned motor vehicles."

Nobody doubts that there are benefits to increased mobility. But as Walsh points out, increasing numbers of automobiles and other motor vehicles in developing countries will result in deteriorating air quality, greater congestion, and poorer quality of life. It also means greater energy consumption--and for an enormously populated nation like China, which is moving rapidly and steadily toward a position of international power, the implications of growing reliance on foreign oil sources can't be ignored.

Impacts of Increased Motorization

Halfway during a recent talk on the current state of urban transportation in developing countries, Massachusetts Institute of Technology urban planning professor Ralph Gakenheimer turned to a series of slides to illustrate a point. "I'm about to tell you how to ride a bicycle in Shanghai when you're making a left turn," he told his audience. "This is only for the courageous listener."

The slides showed extremely heavy traffic on a two-way Shanghai street divided into four lanes. …

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