09/15/2010, 00.00
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Monster road gridlocks, physiological on Chinese expressways

China’s road system is inadequate. Large-scale road transport is causing major traffic jams. The gridlock is also caused by too many tollbooths set up to raise revenues. Coal transport relies heavily on road transportation.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The huge gridlock on the Inner Mongolia to Beijing expressway (which runs through Hebei province) has left thousands of vehicles stranded for more than ten days along a 150-kilometre stretch of the road, especially coal-carrying lorries. However, the situation is not unique. Many of China’s highways and byways have been clogged in the past few months. For experts, bad road management is to blame.

Just days after it began to ease on 23 August, another 100-kilometre jam began to build up on the same expressway. However, already back in June coal-carrying lorries would need 20 days to deliver their supplies to Beijing from western mines without attracting media attention.

In September, the surreal images of thousands of stranded vehicles, drivers camping out or playing cards on gridlocked roads in the middle of nowhere, made headlines around the world. For hauling companies and drivers, it was nothing new though.

Chinese authorities spent billions of yuan to build the second-longest expressway system, after that of the United States, but they failed to organise it properly. Management has been very chaotic, with each province building its own network used as a revenue-generating enterprise rather than as a means to ensure the faster movement of goods and people.

Part of the problem is the fact that planning for the system dates back to the 1970s when priorities were different. Since then, China’s energy consumption has grown exponentially, with coal fuelling two thirds of overall production. Unfortunately, for the country, most coalmines are in Inner Mongolia, in the distant north-west, whilst most consumers are in the cities of the eastern coastal regions.

With China’s railway network able to handle only 40 per cent of coal from Inner Mongolia, the other 60 per cent has to go by road.

When the four-lane expressway from Inner Mongolia to Hebei was built, it was supposed to handle a maximum of 20,000 vehicles a day in both directions. Today, the actual traffic has reached about 70,000. The same is true on the Hebei to Beijing stretch.

Making matters worse, Beijing traffic police have imposed restrictions on the roads under its jurisdiction, banning heavy goods vehicles during the day and forcing the police in Inner Mongolia and Hebei to block the coal trucks from getting on the Beijing-bound expressways.

Too many tollbooths and weighs stations also clog the system. For local authorities, tollbooths are cash cows for provincial treasurers’ delight. Hence, they have proliferated. For example, whilst the central government stipulates there may be a tollbooth every 40 kilometres, some local authorities have set up tollbooths every 20 kilometres or even less. With so many tollbooths, long traffic jams have followed even before motorists approach them.

Because tolls are counted as local revenue, local governments have an incentive to set up booths on their own borders. On Inner Mongolia-Hebei border, this has meant tollbooths just a few hundreds of metres apart.

In order to speed up traffic, the authorities have also banned heavy-duty haulers from the road. Lorries must stop at a number of so-called weigh stations run by local authorities to have their weight checked. However, those carrying coal above the limit are not stopped but fined. Thus, provincial coffers fill up but so do expressways with overloaded lorries.

In view of media coverage of the situation, embarrassed officials have been spurred into action. They have set up emergency headquarters bringing together traffic police from Inner Mongolia, Hebei and Beijing to improve co-ordination to ease the gridlocks. They have also promised to build more roads and railways in the next few years to increase freight capacity. However, they have not yet suggested reducing the number of tollbooths and weigh stations.

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