One of the joys of living in Beijing is driving. Yes, you read that right: Beijing may be one of the most congested cities in the world, with four million cars competing for space, but driving is fun.
Before you begin to think that your correspondent is one of those weird car fanatics who loves nothing better than a whiff of exhaust fumes to kick off the day, let me assure you that Fat Dragon barely knows where to stick the gas nozzle. Luckily, Chinese gas stations are old-fashioned enough to employ nice attendants who put it in the hole for you.
The reason why driving in Beijing is fun is precisely because it is hellish: There are so many damned vehicles and so many cretinous drivers that it is impossible not to shout abuse at the idiot who just cut you off. And shouting abuse at random strangers is strangely therapeutic.
The experience is good for the soul in the same way that Roman Catholic confession is good for the soul: It allows one to get things off one’s chest.
The good news for the repressed folk of other Chinese cities – who don’t get their daily fix of white-knuckled ranting – is that there is plenty more of it on the way. Last year China overtook the US to become the world’s biggest vehicle market, selling 13.5 million cars, vans and trucks.
There are now 40 million vehicles in China. In Beijing alone, 2,000 new cars roll onto the roads every day.
Chinese drivers cannot match their gear-head counterparts in the US yet, but China’s car-love is growing deeper every year. Attempt to take a quiet stroll through a village near the Great Wall on a summer’s day and chances are you’ll be confronted by a convoy of 4x4s roaring through the hills. That’ll be the Beijing Jeep Club out for a weekend’s entertainment. Brave a busy stretch of expressway and you may well find yourself playing piggy-in-the-middle as a team of black Audis chase one another across the carriageway. Beijing’s third ring road is a notorious late-night racing venue.
Increasingly, though, the idiot in front is more likely to be driving a mini-BYD than Vorsprung durch Technik. Two out of every three new vehicles sold last year were small passenger cars, snapped up by the growing hordes of first-time drivers who cannot afford big, expensive cars. Policy makers helped to fire the explosion of new vehicles by subsidizing sales of cars with small engines, which they say are more environmentally friendly than the convoys of tanks commonly seen on Beijing’s streets.
In aggregate terms, however, encouraging sales of slightly smaller cars is hardly going to save the planet. Extrapolating from current growth rates – admittedly a statistically reckless thing to do – we can expect to see 300 million cars on China’s roads by the end of 2020!
The aim of China’s car economy is modeled on that of the US, which really took off with the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. China’s own expressway plan is similarly designed to knit the country together, thereby driving down transport costs, creating national markets and boosting labor mobility. By the end of 2008, the country had already built 60,000 kilometers of expressway, compared to 75,000 km in the US. Over the next few years, policy makers project that the network will grow to 85,000 km.
Critics of China’s huge investment boom argue this is a waste of money. But like it or not, the clogged roads are here to stay.