Friday, September 18, 2009

Navigating Chengdu’s traffic: Part I

A 2008 China Today article notes that Chengdu ranks fourth among China’s cities in terms of car ownership, surpassing that of larger cities—and, if hearsay proves to be true, by now Chengdu is third. It has certainly become noticeably more stressful and time-consuming to travel from point A to point B in the four years I’ve been here.

- By Jane Voodikon, Chengdu

The capital of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, Chengdu is a “second-tier,” “medium-sized” city but also a development pace-setter. And not only is the development rapid, it’s broad, too, applying to economy as well as infrastructure: construction of or upgrades to roads, railways, bus lines, and the soon-to-open subway.

Currently, Chengdu has four ring roads to Beijing’s six, although one, the largest, is not called the “Fourth Ring Road” but the “High-Speed Ring Road.” Plans were announced this month for the construction of “2.5” and “3.5” Ring Roads meant to ease congestion.

And in the still-barren but construction-crazy Hi-Tech Zone, a one-way underground ring road, adjacent to a massive shopping zone, will mean that buses will be the only motor vehicles traveling at ground level. New fiber-optic lighting technologies will direct sunlight to the tunnel, providing natural light for 10 hours per day.

Despite all the attention to the apparent development of a car-friendly city, in contrast to being a bus commuter in Los Angeles, as I was for the four years prior to my move to China, here, not owning a car is still the norm—which doesn’t necessarily make it easier to get around, but it does mean at least there are millions of others in the same boat (or on the same bus) with you, instead of zipping around you in their private automobiles.

In terms of logistics, this means that buses run frequently, and lines are designed to transport passengers from one place to another without a few-mile walk in between. Major roads have bicycle lanes that are separated from the car lanes, and bike riders travel in packs, alongside electric scooters—although, increasingly and annoyingly, cars drive down them or park in them. And Chengdunese drivers—for all that has been said about their reckless driving—at least know to watch out for bikers and pedestrians.

In terms of culture, too, there’s a noticeable contrast between the two locations: Bus-related stories of interest appear in the local news regularly. In the past week, there’s been the story of the “young and beautiful bus ticket seller” in retaliation to Shanghai’s ( and the driver who’s getting his passengers into a patriotic mood for the upcoming National Day celebrations by decorating his bus with small Chinese flags (

But for all that, Chinese buses have gotten a bad rap as of late. Sloppy driving (, bus fires (, and bus collisions ( have all been recent complaints of Chengdu residents.

And that’s just the start of the commuter complaints. For those who take taxis, if you’re lucky enough to nab one within 30 minutes, unless it’s the middle of the night, you’re likely to be sitting in gridlock for ... well, longer than it would take to walk the distance, sometimes. City officials say one of the city’s main thoroughfares, People’s Road South, which has faced constant re-routings, closures, potholes, lane removal, etc. due to the subway construction over the past several years, will return to “normal”( by the end of next month, but nobody seems to be holding their breath.

Some companies are setting their sights on how to profit from this situation. The Palmcity ( website already provides real-time traffic information for several cities in China, including Chengdu, and will launch a program to show available parking spaces within the city, a spokesperson for the company told the China Daily ( Signboards hung around the city years ago already provide this information to drivers on the road.

Bus fire leads to system upgrades

On a sizzling hot June morning this year, a bus sitting in traffic suddenly went up in flames. The panicked passengers, not thinking to or unable to break the windows, stampeded each other on the way out of the bus’s two doors. A total of 27 died on the spot, and of the XX who were sent to the hospital, two more died later. Although the fire was found to have been started by an elderly suicidal man who had earlier threatened to his daughter that he would perish in a spectacular way, the incident—and others following shortly thereafter, including spontaneous engine combustions in Shenzhen and Chengdu—raised concerns over the safety of the country’s buses.

Why was a passenger allowed to bring a can of gasoline on board the bus? Why were there so many people on the bus that they were unable to exit in time to save their lives? Why were the safety hammers not used to break the windows?

In fact, it is quite common for passengers to bring all sorts of items onto city buses. Many commute into the city every day from the countryside to conduct business, bringing large, unidentified parcels with them. Live animals—both pets and poultry—are brought on board. And buses are routinely crowded ( to the point that passengers are literally pressed against the sides, front, and door of the bus. Prior to coming to China the only time I had been on a bus so crowded was during the MTA strike of 2003, when selected routes ran only a handful of times each day.

The disaster prompted a widespread campaign for upgrading bus safety across the nation. And with the official launch of the Chengdu Bus Dispatch and Surveillance Center two weeks ago, the 5,000 buses in operation in Chengdu are now under constant real-time electronic surveillance, Sichuan Online ( reports.

In addition to this safety measure, Chengdu’s Public Transportation Group has made several other enhancements to the bus system, including a text-messaging route-check system and electronic signboards at 500 stops.

The new surveillance system utilizes “smart” GPS technology to monitor the buses’ speed, spacing, and passengers’ alighting and disembarking. If any irregularities are detected, the bus driver will be notified. The system covers the entire area within the Second Ring Road.

Currently, only a handful of stops are equipped with signboards that notify passengers of the current time and date as well as the forecasted time of the next bus’s arrival. These will be upgraded to also include route-change information, and by year’s end, 500 of the city’s stops will feature such signboards. In the future, all stops will be outfitted with a hidden camera feeding to the dispatch center.

Additionally, a new service has been launched to allow passengers to check bus routes via SMS. When a passenger sends the letters “GJ” to 10628106, the system will automatically reply with a menu that enables users to check all the stops on a particular bus line, possible routes between two stops, and the location of bus-pass recharging stations. The service is currently only in Chinese and costs 3 jiao per use or 1.2 yuan per month with unlimited usage, although it’s not nearly as user-friendly as the online mapping services that also find bus routes and that have been in existence for years.

About the author:

Jane lives in the southwestern China capital of Chengdu, where she rides her Phoenix bicycle to work as a magazine ( and website editor ( and blogger ( Born and raised in the commuter's nightmare that is Los Angeles, she spent a regretful two years in the driver's seat before she realized there were better ways, even in L.A.

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