Epic Chinese traffic jams caused by exploding consumer demand
Exploding consumer demand has lead to a Chinese traffic jam on a highway to Beijing 60 miles long that could last until mid-September. Photo credit: CC by poeloq/Flickr

For U.S. drivers stressed about their commute, a traffic jam in China could help them keep things in perspective. The Chinese traffic jam started 10 days ago. It has grown to be about 60 miles long. The gridlock has clogged a highway between Beijing and Zhangjiakou and is expected to last until road construction in Beijing is finished around the middle of September. Vehicles in the Chinese traffic jam move about a kilometer a day. Some drivers have been caught in the traffic jam up to five days. The epic congestion is being blamed on a massive influx of trucks feeding increasing Chinese consumption and soaring coal demand for electricity.

Traffic jams increase with Chinese consumption

Traffic jams are an accepted fact of life for Chinese drivers, but this Beijing traffic jam is unusually severe. The Wall Street Journal reports that road construction started the traffic jam Aug. 14 in China’s Heibei Province on a major highway leading to Beijing. Congestion worsened as some vehicles collided and others broke down. Highway officials say the traffic jam could persist for a month because the road project isn’t expected to be finished until then. The traffic jam is on a main route for freight shipped to Beijing. Gridlock on this highway has become the norm as the capital city’s population of 20 million consumes more goods. More heavy trucks hauling more freight tear up the roads, leading to more construction and more traffic jams.

Coal demand clogs freight routes

Demand for coal to produce electricity for the world’s fastest-growing economy has been identified as a primary catalyst for the Chinese traffic jam phenomenon. Bloomberg reports that Inner Mongolia, a huge border province northwest of Beijing, surpassed Shanxi province last year to become China’s biggest coal supplier. After a pattern of fatal accidents, the Chinese government closed many mines  in Shanxi–a province southwest of Beijing with an established railway infrastructure. Inner Mongolia currently lacks the railway capacity to carry the hundreds of millions of tons of coal it produces. Suppliers are forced to ship the coal with trucks via Beijing to port cities, where it is shipped to power plants in southern China.

A capitalist lesson in supply and demand

Drivers stranded in the Chinese traffic jam coped in different ways. NPR reports that road rage has been absent as people killed time by sleeping, taking walks or playing cards and chess. Local villagers, zig-zagging between vehicles on bikes, reaped a windfall selling noodles, box lunches and snacks. The Chinese traffic jam provided an old-fashioned capitalist lesson in supply and demand. Drivers complained about price-gouging by villagers who became their sole source for food and water. A bottle of water that normally costs 1 yuan (15 cents) was selling for 10 yuan ($1.50). The price of a 3 yuan- (45 cent) cup of instant noodles had more than tripled.


Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/drivers-seat/2010/08/24/chinese-traffic-jam-stretches-60-miles-ten-days/

Bloomberg: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-08-24/chinese-demand-for-coal-spurs-9-day-traffic-jam-on-expressway.html

NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129395326

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