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Yahoo News 22 Sep 07
China observes 'Car Free Day' with the usual gridlock
by Peter Harmsen
More than 100 Chinese cities including Beijing staged a "Car Free Day" Saturday to fight congestion and pollution, but the streets of the capital remained defiantly clogged with traffic jams.
Beijing's middle class climbed into their cars to go shopping and touring as usual, apparently disregarding an injunction to leave the vehicles at home -- a pattern that seemed to be repeated in the other 107 participating cities.
"It's the same as always," said taxi driver Dong Yongjun, as he navigated up the capital's congested Third Ring Road. "I don't see any difference."
The situation was similar in other major cities, such as Shanghai and Wuhan, a vast industrial city in the centre of the country.
In Beijing and the other cities across China, some areas were open only to pedestrians, cyclists, taxis and buses from 7:00 am (2300 GMT Friday) to 7:00 pm Saturday.
While most major Chinese cities were part of the "Car Free Day" and "Public Transport Week," there was one glaring exception -- South China's Guangzhou, home to more than ten million people and one million cars.
Guangzhou officials argued that the city's public transport system was not ready to take the extra pressure, the Southern Metropolitan Daily reported. Many residents of Guangzhou seemed to agree with the decision not to take part in the "Car Free Day," dismissing it as merely symbolic and with no real impact on the environment, according to the pcauto.com.cn website.
"You refrain from driving your car for just one day, but the other 364 days of the year you do drive your car. How's that going to help the Earth?" one asked.
Beijing had significantly more success in August, when it banned more than one million cars each day from its roads for a four-day period to test what it could do to clear the air during next year's Olympics.
The difference could be that in August it was a real ban, with more than 6,500 traffic police on duty to penalise offenders, while Saturday's "Car Free Day" was a voluntary measure.
Every September 22 is "Car Free Day" in many countries around the world, but it is the first time China has tried to join in in a substantial way.
Primetime TV news attempted to give the activities of the day a positive spin, showing newly wed couples from Liaocheng in east China's Shandong province riding bikes in tuxedos and bridal gowns. "You save money and help the environment," one of the brides told the TV reporters. "It's romantic."
Environmental awareness is growing in China but rapid economic growth remains a top government priority, creating difficult choices for policy makers.
China's auto industry has been a key component of the nation's booming economy. Vehicle production in July was up 32.7 percent compared to the same month last year. That is good for the economy but bad for the environment.
A report from the State Environmental Protection Administration said that on bad days, 79 percent of air pollution in Chinese cities is caused by car fumes.
Many ordinary Chinese view the growing number of cars with concern not so much because of fears for the environment, but because of the epic traffic jams that result during rush hours, or at any time of the day.
"Cars certainly offer motorists plenty of freedom to move around, especially those living in remote areas," the China Daily said in an opinion piece Saturday. "But in many Chinese cities, this convenience has quickly turned into a nightmare, as roads become increasingly gridlocked by the rising number of cars."
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