Wide, wide world of transit: Metro and Beijing Transport team up to battle traffic congestion

Cars line up in a traffic jam along a road in Beijing on May 12, 2010. The number of vehicles registered in Beijing picked up pace in early 2010, government figures showed, putting the Chinese capital on course to have five million cars on the roads by year's end. Photo: LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Cars line up in a traffic jam along a road in Beijing on May 12, 2010. The number of vehicles registered in Beijing picked up pace in early 2010, government figures showed, putting the Chinese capital on course to have five million cars on the roads by year's end. Photo: LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

What do the one of the world’s most populous cities and the car capital of the world have in common? Three guesses: traffic, traffic and even more traffic to come.

To that end, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority are teaming up to better manage urban congestion.

The Ministry of Transport in China, seeking global advice on that country’s growing traffic jams, liked what the Federal Transit Administration reported in its quarterly progress review of Metro in January — chiefly that Metro was active in a variety of fronts to contain traffic.

The Ministry invited Metro’s Deputy CEO Paul Taylor — with 30 years experience in the field — to visit China and have a look at the rapidly expanding traffic knot in Beijing.

Taylor, recently returned from a week’s worth of meetings and two workshops, met with transportation officials to discuss cooperation between the Commission of Transport and Metro and returned with a proposed agreement to pool traffic management expertise. The agreement does not involve any exchange of funding resources. Even the travel expenses were sparse, split down the middle, said Taylor.

Described in the draft memorandum as a “cooperative partnership to relieve urban traffic congestion,” the agreement would work both ways. In memorandum speak: The Commission of Transport and Metro will exchange “achievements in congestion monitoring, analytic research and system construction and borrow each other’s experience in work management and systematic construction.”

Simply put, the two agencies will pool research on public transportation, traffic flow, parking regulations and congestion management.

Taylor will present the memorandum to the Board of Directors of Metro at the October board meeting. Here is a link to notes taken by Taylor during the trip — there are a lot of very interesting morsels in there.

Traffic on a dreary day in Beijing in 2008. Photo by Noel back in Zurich, via Flickr.

Traffic on a dreary day in Beijing in 2008. Photo by Noel back in Zurich, via Flickr.

“Beijing is on the brink of gridlock,” said Taylor. “They want advice from the car capital of the U.S. on how to head off a stampede of traffic. Beijing has a population of 20 million people with an infrastructure designed for people using transit or riding bicycles.”

Booming auto sales are putting a major crimp in traffic. According to officials there, an increase of 1,900 registered vehicles hit the road per day in the first half of 2010. If the surge continues, the total number of vehicles could hit seven million by 2015, nearly a half a million more than Beijing’s current network of roads could handle.

Los Angeles County, on the other hand, has a population of about 9.8 million with an infrastructure largely designed for automobiles. Here, the surge is quite the opposite. Metro Rail has grown to 79 miles of track in just 20 years, Metro alone runs 191 bus routes — municipal operators run dozens of others — and a major expansion of mass transit is in the works thanks to Measure R.

But systems in both cities are struggling to keep up with a population that’s rapidly outpacing mobility and existing modes of transportation. To thwart the threat of total gridlock, Beijing is extending 12 light-rail and subway lines and opening more express bus lanes. About 38 to 40 percent of people in Beijing currently use transit, another 35 percent use cars and 18 percent are on bikes. The city’s goal is to increase the number of people taking transit to 48 percent in the next fives by aggressively expanding their bus, bike and rail system.

“From our perspective,” Taylor said, “it’s invigorating to see the Chinese turning to expanding public transportation. They are aggressively building subways. We could learn how they package contracts and apply construction techniques. They also accommodate and encourage bicycle travel and that’s something we could probably learn more about.

“On the other hand, they are not optimistic when it comes to congestion pricing. What they currently do is what we did in the 70s when gasoline was rationed. Cars are banned from the roads one out of five weekdays, in a system based on the last digit of their license plate.”

Neither transit agency is a lightweight in transportation.

Los Angeles is seen as an innovator when it comes to advancing alternative fuels — with more than 2,500 buses running on compressed natural gas — and its bus rapid transit system. Many people are closely watching Metro’s push for the 30/10 Initiative, which is seen as a novel way to finance and quickly build transit projects by using federal loans and other financing.

China’s fast trains may offer lessons for Los Angeles and California, where a bullet train is in the planning stages and still needs to be fully financed.  China in recent years has invested $88 billion in the country’s railways and now operates 1,758 miles of high-speed rail, the largest such system in the world.

But with five million cars on the road, “Beijing sees what’s coming and they’re looking for advice on how they can head it off,” said Taylor.

4 replies

  1. They are asking for help from us on traffic. LOL. This is a joke right? Why don’t they ask someone who has succeeded. Tokyo, Copenhagen, Seoul (great subway – need to support biking).

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  2. Maybe LA will get straddling buses! (google it) Honestly though, I don’t know why they would ask LA how to cure their congestion… Its like the blind leading the blind. How about consulting Amsterdam about making your city more bike friendly so people don’t have to drive and choke up the air. I know Beijing was originally a high bicycling area out of neccessity, but riding a bicycle still maintains it’s phenomenal benefits even when people have the money for cars. China: mass personal automobility is the wrong direction. Why not be the country that got it right?

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