Regardless of where you live, the question of mobility—the ability to get around—is right up there with eating, sleeping, housing, and health.
In 2009, China became both the world's largest automobile manufacturer and market, continuing the pursuit of a certain dream deferred. This year, the number of private vehicles on China's roads surpassed 100 million. That number is projected to double within a decade. Of the current 100 million, 1.5 million are in Sichuan.
Chengdu currently ranks third in the country in rate of private-vehicle-ownership. The city aims to promote itself as a "car base" both country- and worldwide by embracing investment by some of the big names in automobile manufacturing, heavily subsidizing private-car purchases, and creating an infrastructure that caters to cars and their drivers, and makes it increasingly difficult for others to share the same space.
So long, sidewalk tea sippers and majiang players—what has this kind of auto-philiac ambition to do with the laidback lifestyle inherent to Sichuan's soul since the diverging of the river by the Dujiang weir?
The pattern emerged years ago: We've seen the red carpet being rolled out for drivers at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists, and bus passengers. The bike lanes are narrowing, or being combined with bus lanes or sidewalks. The sidewalks themselves are re-appropriated into parking lots. Pedestrian overpasses and underpasses are constructed frantically, sometimes in dazzlingly absurd configurations, such as the H + Y bridge that appeared in September at the intersection of Wenweng Lu and Shaanxi Jie. The majority of the best space is being taken away from the public and being put into the hands of a privileged and for-now few. But those few are growing into the masses, and in the meantime, the message has been made clear: Four wheels good, two wheels (or feet) bad.
"Solutions" to the increasing traffic congestion are made constantly, only to be absorbed within months by the swelling number of cars on the roads. It's a mantra that's been proven time and again over the past century in the world's most car-centric cities: Create more space for cars, and more cars will come.
Chengdu observes World Carfree Day every September 22 by closing off a limited number of roads (usually the four surrounding Tianfu Square) to motorized vehicles between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. No inconvenience to most rush-hour motorists there—plus, the list of vehicles exempt from the closures is long. While it can be used as a tool for greenwashing by states and corporations, the Carfree Day concept is a grassroots movement with usually voluntary participation.
Chengdu also hosts an annual motor show, which this year (its 14th) put over 4,000 cars into the hands of buyers in just 10 days (compared to a reported 1,389 vehicles in the month of January 2010), garnering praise from local media for injecting a glimmer of hope into an otherwise lackluster sales year for the local auto industry.
Discussions that started last year on possible ways to curb car-ownership growth have stalled, after drivers balked at the proposals, most of which would regulate the number of car registrations issued in a given time period. As critics pointed out, such a system favors those who've already found the means to purchase and register a vehicle and overlooks those who have yet to make their fortune.
A survey of Chengdu's traffic patterns predicted that by 2015 the traffic network within the Second Ring would be gridlocked at rush hour, and that traffic outside of that area would travel at 8.5 kmph on average. New parking spaces are built to accommodate new demand, but as with road space, are quickly absorbed by the ever-increasing number of cars. If nothing else, there's simply not enough space to sustain the current growth rate, without the city's urban perimeter oozing ever outwards—a vicious cycle when private vehicle ownerships becomes necessary, or perceived as necessary, simply to traverse the vast expanse of land.
Car-jammed roads are such an ordinary, everyday sight that many of us have stopped imagining what cities can look like when cars are not at the core of urban design. We have become so accustomed to the pollution—visual, aural, and chemical—created by these armies of rolling metal boxes that we ignore them, at times inconveniencing ourselves to integrate their existence into our lives, yielding to their mass, deferring to their state of being a pricey possession.
It is difficult to live happily in a place that inflicts intense, daily stress on its inhabitants simply because they want or need to engage in the everyday act of transporting themselves from one point to another. There's plenty to discuss on this seemingly mundane topic. With that in mind this column was conceived.
This article by was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 48 ("art, music & more"). Statistics in this article were compiled from a selection of both English and Chinese-language China Daily articles. Photo by Dan Sandoval.
Previous article: Chengdu and Sichuan history in photos Part 1: Sichuan 1909
Next article: Sichuan Menu Part 1: Veggies, Tofu, Rice and Noodle dishes