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Can Innovation Help To Solve China's Traffic Congestion?

Could simple traffic management be enough, or are bigger ideas needed?

9Aug

No one likes traffic jams and the inconvenience they cause, but for some countries, the problem is much worse than a couple of hours stuck in the car during rush hour on Friday. China has been trying to battle traffic for decades, yet the problem is far from its resolution.

China is home to the world's worst traffic jams. For example, back in 2010, drivers got stuck in a 62-mile long traffic jam that lasted for 12 days. The problem wasn't caused by weather conditions or road closures, there were simply too many vehicles clogging the road, particularly heavy trucks delivering construction supplies to Beijing. Ironically, these construction supplies were for road works to ease the congestion. Five years later, another traffic jam trapped thousands of drivers on the G4 Beijing-Hong Kong- Macau Expressway, which resulted in 50-lane chaos.

The government tries to handle the problem by imposing restrictions, but results are inconsistent. Measures include the use of vehicles through alternate-day travel policy and affordable public transport. Restrictions don't apply to electric vehicles, though, in order to encourage more people to be eco-friendly, as severe smogs are becoming a norm in the area.

So why is traffic so bad in China?

Chinese cities are simply not big enough to handle increasing demand and the number of new vehicles. The cities are also not designed to come up with traffic solutions promptly, due to poor transport management. Additionally, the country's booming vehicle production indicates a high number of new drivers, meaning that people are often inexperienced, which leads to road accidents and collisions. According to the Economist, for the past decade, 15 million cars were added to Chinese streets every year, as they became a status symbol among the country’s growing middle class. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that at least 200,000 people die as a result of road accidents in China every year, compared to the 2012 Chinese death toll report that estimated 60,000 deaths.

In order to improve the situation, tech enthusiasts came up with the transit elevated bus (TEB), a type of public transport that is thought to be more efficient than conventional ones. The first TEB prototype was presented by Jinchuang Corp at the 19th China Beijing International High-Tech Expo (CHITEC). The TEB is powered by electricity and looks like a giant arch on the rails that is capable of straddling the cars below it, allowing them to pass through. The bus is able to carry up to 300 passengers in its 72 ft long carriage, and one TEB can replace 40 conventional buses. According to Popular Mechanics, the concept is much cheaper and quicker to produce than traditional buses or subway systems.

The TEB is in the early stages of testing but has already been criticized over its efficiency. The first concern surrounds its size, as the bus can only accommodate cars that are up to 6 ft high, meaning that bigger ones wouldn't fit. Additionally, it's unclear how such a vehicle would perform turns, deal with traffic lights, and how it will affect drivers, who would essentially have to deal with a moving tunnel. Even though TEB concept went viral on social media, in reality, it doesn't seem that mass production is possible in the near future.

Zhang Jianfei, a Vice President of Plan and Research Institute of the Ministry of Communication, believes that the problem can be solved with smaller measures. For example, instead of widening roads, it's more useful to build additional highways and alternative routes, as wide roads are essentially traffic 'bottlenecks'. Parking fees across the country are currently cheap and encourage people to drive, rather than using public transport. Subway stations are located far from each other, causing more inconvenience for commuters. Existing knowledge gaps in infrastructure shape the core of the problem, meaning that it can be more useful to master transport management first, and, only then, seek help from innovation.

Sources

Image courtesy of TonyV3112/Shutterstock.com

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