Too Many Cars!


On saw a headline on an news site that said "Think your commute sucks?". It was a photo essay on commuting around the world. It was amusing, but didn't go into the issue at all. Growing up in L.A., and then living in the Bay Area, I know how bad rush hour can be. Browsing the photos brought to mind traffic that I've experienced traveling. In the U.S. traffic grew gradually over the last century. Sure it is awful in a lot of places, but it is much worse in countries where automobile ownership exploded, countries where 30 years ago there were very few cars. It takes decades - and a lot of money - to build the infrastructure to accommodate heavy traffic.

My first trip to Beijing was in 1994. That was the China where the bicycle was king. The streets were jammed with bicycles. I was able to borrow a bicycle and join in. If you've never been in a bicycle traffic jam, well you won't find them in Beijing anymore.* Now, those same roads that were packed with bicycles are now equally burdened with autos. Getting anywhere in the city can take hours - you'd be better off on a bicycle, except of course for the need to breathe the air that is heavy with vehicle emmisions. The shocking thing is how quickly this change came about. By 1999 (5 years later), the auto had completely taken over the roads.

Moscow didn't have the bicycles; the people relied on public transportation. With the fall of communism the change there was amost immediate. Incredible traffic jams, expecially on the "highways" in and out of the city. At least China and the Soviet Union had wide avenues - the central planners knew that crowd control is much easier when tanks and troop carriers have easy access - traffic was not their concern. There are many countries that have experienced rapid growth that are in a much worse position. Nepal has no rail system and no money to build one or to improve roads. Kathmandu, which 30 years ago was a sleepy town, is now choked with traffic and the resultant fumes. Nairobi is the same. The story is being repeated throughout the developing world.

The title of this post is "Too Many Cars," but people need a way to get around. Cities have grown so rapidly in recent years that even the best transit systems - Tokyo, Paris - are unable to cope. In Moscow, the subway trains are only about a minute apart during peak hours. They are still packed, as are the roads. So yes, your commute may be bad, but it could be worse.

* If you missed out on the bicycle traffic jams in China, maybe you'd like to experience a scooter traffic jam. Vietnam is a great destination for these. Check out rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi!


By Kevin O'Neill


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