A nine-day traffic jam outside Beijing has drivers fuming, street vendors turning a quick profit and Chinese traffic authorities struggling for answers. Traffic has been slowed to a crawl since August 14 on a 100-kilometer stretch of National Expressway 110 that runs between Beijing and Hebei province. Officials say the jam is caused by an increase in trucks carrying goods to Beijing and by highway maintenance work along the route.
Highways have become numerous and complicated in and around Beijing in recent years as the Chinese public has made a large shift to motorized travel over the past 30 years. The road system there is now similar to what motorists find in the Washington DC area, which according to Forbes magazine ranks as the second most congested area in the United States behind Los Angeles.
Joan Morris is with the Northern Virginia District of the Virginia Highway Department, or VDOT. "We have had 20 mile (32 kilometer) backups,” she said. “We have extraordinarily miserable days. It has happened. But our job is to make sure that does not happen."
While highway maintenance is being blamed for the massive jam in China, Morris says those types of operations are very choreographed in and around Washington. "You have to have one traffic guy who is looking at how those lane closures could impact one another. You have got to be careful you are not shutting this down and also shutting that down. So it is a big coordination effort,” Morris said.
“And there are lots of folks dedicated just to reviewing lane closures, making sure everything makes sense, making sure the right signs are out there and that we are communicating with the public well in advance,” she said.
Delays across the United States add up. In the 439 U.S. metro areas, the average commuter spends 36 hours a year in traffic, which amounts to $87 billion in wasted fuel and productivity according to a 2009 survey by the Texas Transportation Institute.
Nancy Singer of the Federal Highway Administration says states can take several approaches to minimizing the impact of road construction and maintenance. "Part of the challenge is in the planning, specifically how states plan construction. And there are various schools of thought on this and various approaches being used.”
Singer said “It is not necessarily just putting up signs and having workers work on the roads. But there are also strategies that can be used in order to reduce the impact to the public."
The highway tie-up outside of Beijing reflects the rapidly increasing number of cars on the road in China, which has become the world's largest market for automobiles. Near Washington, Joan Morris says Virginia's highway system has been viewed as a model for other road projects around the world.
"We look at other places in the world,” she said. “But often they are coming over here to see what we have done. We have had many many groups from China and from other countries come to Washington DC and look at what Virginia is doing and what Maryland is doing because they look to us often for how to do it right."
Nancy Singer says technology is also changing the way highways and roads are being built to further minimize the impact on drivers. "Technologies make it possible to build roads faster. There is a whole area called pre-cast concrete and pre-cast roads and bridges where you can build them off site. And you can actually place them onto the road, perhaps at night time, which is really like building blocks. So that causes very minimal disruption to the public."
Not everyone is unhappy about the massive traffic jam in China. The official Xinhua news agency says while drivers are suffering, local residents are seizing the opportunity to sell food and bottled water to the thousands of stranded motorists at inflated prices.
Authorities expect the congestion to last until workers complete the road maintenance project around mid-September.