Saturday, September 22, 2007

World Carfree Day, 2007

Um, so somewhere between 100 and 108 of China's cities, including Chengdu, according to Shanghai-based reporter Irena Shen, are supposed to be participating in this event--but I didn't notice any decrease in the number of cars this afternoon while I rode my bike to work--or when I looked out the window at quarter past 6 p.m. Hmph.

Crappy China Daily article posted to Xinhua:

BEIJING, Sept. 22 -- Today's Car-Free Day is significant both for China and the rest of the world.

It is the first time that 108 Chinese cities will take part in the annual global event, which dates back to the 1950s.

China is an important participant in the campaign. The country became the world's second-largest auto market and third-largest carmaker last year.

It has also become the second-largest greenhouse gas producer in the world, and is rapidly catching up with the United States, the largest emitter.

In this sense, China's participation will greatly strengthen the Car-Free Day movement.

For Chinese, owning a car is a dream that came true only very recently. Passion for car ownership is strong and is gaining momentum all the time. The number of cars on the roads is multiplying almost by the hour.

In Beijing, about 1,000 new cars are added to the streets on an average day. In Shanghai, 8,000 license plates were issued by auction this month. The average price of nearly 50,000 yuan for a plate indicates a fervent demand for cars.

Cars certainly offer motorists plenty of freedom to move around, especially those living in remote areas.

But in many Chinese cities, this convenience has quickly turned into a nightmare, as roads become increasingly gridlocked by the rising number of cars.

An aerial view of Shanghai's elevated highway during rush hour would often look like a gigantic parking lot.

The capital, Beijing, is sometimes referred to as "shoudu" - not the capital, but the nation's most congested city.

So what was designed to offer greater freedom of movement is now inhibiting people's ability to move about freely, instead creating road blocks that slow the movement of the urban population.

This must come as a great surprise to new car owners when they discover that their newfound freedom is in fact the opposite.

More importantly, this obsession with car ownership is unfair to the many people who continue to use urban public transport, which is now also becoming clogged by the increasing number of cars.

Even worse is the environmental impact. A State Environmental Protection Administration report says that on a "smog day," 79 percent of the air pollution is caused by car fumes.

According to experts, the discharge of harmful car exhausts will be reduced by 3,000 tons on Car-Free Day. These fumes threaten people's lives by damaging the respiratory system - particularly the lungs. They also cause cancer and deteriorate heart disease.

The growing number of traffic accidents is another threat. China's annual death toll of 100,000 from traffic accidents is by far the highest in the world.

While Car-Free Day in Beijing got a lukewarm response two years ago, the keen participation of 108 cities this year shows growing public concern about the traffic and environmental problems caused by cars.

Today, all cars will be barred from selected areas in these 108 cities. People will be encouraged to walk, cycle and use public transport.

A massive week-long campaign promoting the use of public transport started in all of these cities on September 16. Many government officials have also pledged their support by vowing to use only public transport.

Compared with cars, public transport like buses and the subway network are a cleaner, more economical and safer alternative.

Cycling and walking are the healthier options. Exercise not only delays the aging of the brain, but also enhances the function of the heart and lungs, as well as strengthening muscles and increasing fitness.

But emissions from the rising number of cars on the roads are affecting the air quality of cyclists and pedestrians.

Local governments haven't helped the situation by expanding car lanes and shrinking or even eliminating bike lanes and footpaths.

That policy has clearly failed. It sends the wrong message by inviting more people to buy cars. So even with widened roads, traffic congestion has become worse than ever before in most Chinese cities.

By favoring drivers, this policy has discriminated against the vast number of cyclists and pedestrians.

Hopefully, today's Car-Free Day will be an awakening for all the local governments that are still making or carrying out these policies.

In Shanghai, the government has switched its emphasis to public transport by designating more bus lanes. Discounts are also being offered for transfers to the city's public transport system.

Some 400 kilometers of subway network is expected to be operational by 2010. This mass transit system aims to make driving a car less necessary in Shanghai.

Shanghai is also reportedly considering introducing a congestion charge in the city center to relieve both the hazards from traffic congestion and air pollution.

As excessive numbers of cars choke up cities and make them less inhabitable, the pledge by 108 Chinese cities to the world to free the streets of cars for a day is just the beginning of the battle.

With cleaner air and smoother traffic in these 108 Chinese cities for a day, more cities will hopefully want to join the campaign next year. And if that happens, it may trigger a shift in thinking; more people might share the hope that Car-Free Day is not just on Sept. 22, but a possibility 365 days of the year.

(Source: China Daily)

Editor: Du Guodong

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