20100824 chinese traffic jam 18
Chinese truckers wait in their vehicles on the highway leading towards Beijing in Guo Lei Zhuang, north China's Hebei province. - 


STEVE CHIOTAKIS: If you're happen to be stuck in traffic right now,
be glad you're not in Beijing. A traffic jam there is in its 10th -- yes, 10th -- day. Since August 14th, thousands of vehicles have stretched for more than 60 miles. It's taken some drivers three days to get through it. The official explanation is road construction.

But as Marketplace's China bureau chief Rob Schmitz reports, it's actually about the number of cars on the road.

ROB SCHMITZ: Back when this traffic jam started, Tiger Woods was married, Dr. Laura still had a job, and China was just the third largest economy in the world -- not that anyone sitting for days in their cars along China's National Expressway 110 noticed. They were too busy getting ripped off by a guerilla economy that's sprung up amidst the gridlock.

According to state-run news reports, vendors are taking advantage of drivers' desperation by selling them instant noodles for four times the price. There's not much else to eat in the Beijing traffic that's backed up all the way to Inner Mongolia. Reports say the congestion could last more than a month.

Shomik Mehndiratta is an urban transportation expert with the World Bank in Beijing. He says while this particular gridlock is impacting mostly freight trucks, the event is a symbol of how China's roads are inundated with traffic.

SHOMIK MEHNDIRATTA: As the country gets richer and becomes more and more urban, and more and more people are being able to buy cars, more and more people do.

Last year, China had 72 million registered vehicles on its roads, not nearly as many as the quarter-billion the U.S. has. But just this year, China surpassed the U.S. in car sales. The World Bank's Mehndiratta says China's cities should not prepare for this by building more highways. He says that would just cause more traffic and pollution. Instead, he says, they should invest in bringing back a hallmark of Chinese transportation that's on its way to being forgotten here: the bicycle.

In Shanghai, I'm Rob Schmitz, for Marketplace.

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz