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Workers Lament Long Commute in China's Choking Cities

Pedestrian crosses footbridge over early afternoon traffic on smoggy day in Beijing (File)

Pedestrian crosses footbridge over early afternoon traffic on smoggy day in Beijing (File)

China was once known as the "Kingdom of Bicycles." But the country's new-found love for the car has seen many Chinese cities succumb to gridlock and an increase in commuting times.

As more and more cars crowd the roads, the sound of ringing bells and squeaky bike wheels is fading in the 21st century. But instead of making travel easier, cars have lengthened the daily commute of the average Chinese employee.

A recent study found that it takes an average of 52 minutes for Beijing residents to get to work -- the longest commute in the entire country. Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Science surveyed 50 cities and found on average commuters endure more than 30 minutes on the road.

And travel times are set to rise as more Chinese are lured to the cities for better jobs. The report suggests that urban planners are struggling to keep up with the demand for public transportation and the growth of car ownership is making effective traffic management impossible.

Cars are viewed as the number one sign of social advancement in China and the government dares not tell its people to stop driving.

Yun Da Jun, a real estate company manager, is typical of China's urbanites. He commutes by car to his office in central Beijing, and it takes him over 40 minutes. To avoid peak rush hour, he has been forced to change his office hours.

But Yun would rather get behind the wheel than use buses and subways, which he said are overcrowded -- even if they would cut his commuting time.

Yun believes if public transportation was good, then fewer people would use their own cars. He also thinks -- in the future -- the government needs to invest more on public transportation because of the environmental problem. That way the number of people driving cars could decrease, they would take public transportation instead, Yun said.

Yao Jie has lived in Beijing all his life. He drives a motorbike to work and it takes him 50 minutes weaving in and out of traffic. He said his ride has become dangerous because of the growing number of cars and trucks - and bad drivers. The traffic has made Yao more afraid during his 30 years commuting via motorbike than ever before.

He blames Beijing's 4 million-plus car drivers for making the roads unsafe. The government, said Yao, cannot keep up with the infrastructure needed to cope with the rapid change in commuting habits.

The city government, however, is spending billions of dollars on transportation.

New roads and subway lines are being built, in addition to the expanded public transportation system built for the 2008 Olympics. But with some 1,500 new cars a day coming on to the city's streets, keeping up with the traffic is difficult.

University of Hong Kong professor James Wang said Beijing should have started investing in public transportation a long time ago.

"If you don't insist on public transportation as a priority for at least a decade then you'll see what we are seeing in Beijing these days: so many people using cars."

Wang suggested companies embrace flexible working hours, or relocate their offices to the suburbs. The government, he said, should lead by example and seek to create what is known as a polycentric city.

"If you relocate the governmental jobs into the suburban or satellite cities, the traffic in main direction at the main peak hours will be reduced. Governmental buildings are a good case. But once they have a piece of land downtown, they never want to give it up. If all the jobs are in the city area, everyone goes back and forth to their suburban homes and that creates a lot of problems," said Wang.

The poor transport infrastructure also impacts the economy. Short journeys that only a few years ago took 20 minutes can now take an hour or more.

Buses are among the causalities in the snarled traffic. Transporting goods and mail also take longer it once did and office working hours are disrupted.

Cao Yaoliang drives a taxi and lives in a suburban town, one hour's drive from Beijing. He said in the suburbs traffic is light. But once near the center, his daily nightmare begins as traffic get worse every day, cutting the number of passengers he picks up -- and their fares.

Being stuck in traffic is something urban residents suffer, but Cao said, something needs to be done.