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Lessons from a traffic jam

I ride the bus almost everyday here in Nanjing. From home to work, the journey is just about 2.5 km, down a single straight road. In ideal traffic conditions it takes about 15 minutes by bus, during rush hour it’s closer to 30 minutes (which is the same amount of time it would take to walk), last night it took me nearly an hour.

About 15 minutes was spent just waiting for a bus, which isn’t entirely unusual. Even though the stop is next to a subway station, and leads to a major residential area, there is only one bus route connecting the two. To me it seems to be a combination of rapid development and poor planning.

China changes so quickly that 5-10 years worth of change at US speeds often happens in just one or two years. In the last ten years private car ownership has exploded, and most cities simply do not have the roads to handle them. I don’t fault Chinese leaders for not being able to keep up with this growth, and as we saw earlier this week, rushing infrastructure projects is not a viable option.

Car ownership is both a status symbol and an object of convenience. If the buses in Nanjing were as regular and comfortable as the ones found in Hong Kong, more people would be willing to take them. As it stands I often have to wait 20 minutes or more for a bus, making it an unreliable hassle.

So when you combine inefficient public transportation (~10% of the problem), narrow roads (70%), and tens of thousands of new drivers driving with Chinese characteristics (20%), traffic can rapidly spiral out of control. When packed on a bus with more than 50 other passengers, the traffic seems that much worse.

So yesterday once I finally boarded the bus and saw that we were hardly moving, I realized I should have walked home. For the first 10 minutes, I was mildly annoyed at the boy grabbing the rail directly over my head in a way that made me hunch over. The next 10 minutes was spent trying to enjoy some music in an effort to remain calm on the now steamy bus. After 30 minutes, I was pretty angry that I still had 3 of the 6 stops left to go.

Then I saw something so ridiculous that I started laughing and looking around to see if anyone else had seen the same thing. In front of the provincial gov’t offices, there were nearly 50 black cars (mostly Audi’s and other high end brands) all with gov’t license plates parked along the already narrow street, each manned by a driver waiting to whisk some bureaucrat home for the evening.  The gov’t employees had created a massive bottleneck with their fleet of chauffeured sedans.

Never had I seen gov’t waste so clearly with my own eyes. Not only is it foolish to have so many cars displayed openly, but when their excess actually forces the rest of us to sit in a traffic jam for nearly an hour, it seems like the perfect way to foment dissent.

Chinese citizens have been pushing for years to get local governments to open up their books and show exactly how much is spent on vehicles, banquets and trips abroad (with little progress). Yesterday it seemed like we just needed a Blue Book and a calculator.


9 Comments

  1. Yep. Sounds like China to me. But that’s part of the charm!

  2. yaxue c. says:

    Great post, Tom, great post. No amount of talking beats a concrete event like this. Tell us more about what is going on on Nanjing’s streets.

  3. Lady Tam Li says:

    You poor guy! I remember those buses all too well!! (In situations like that, we’d usually hail a taxi, but I don’t know how easy that is to do in Nanjing right now. At least in the taxi, you’ll have some breathing room!)

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Good old Casey – I’ll look forward to his take on things!

  5. Thank you for praising our transport system in Hong Kong – which is about the only thing remaining here that works with some semblance of order and discipline.

  6. Joel says:

    Where was your camera??

    Looking forward to Casey’s “reports.” 🙂

  7. […] “three public expenditures” refers to public spending on government vehicles, banquets, and overseas travel. This part of spending is the most hotly debated, and one that […]

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