SHANGHAI -- One aspect of this country's high-speed economic growth is that Chinese are getting richer and prefer to have their own cars. After decades of streets crowded with bicyclists pedaling their way to work, suddenly China has blossomed into the world's largest auto market.
But that isn't something worth celebrating, at least not for Chinese mayors. In fact, cities here are trying hard to pry drivers out of their shiny new cars and lure them into mass transit.
By 2015, on average, 1 out of 3 commuters should travel by mass transmit in big cities, up from 1 out of 5 now, according to China's Ministry of Transportation's proposed development plan.
This topic landed a prime spot on the official agenda, since the proliferation of private cars on the road is turning cities into gridlocked nightmares. Already, Beijing's emergency medical centers have begun sending paramedics by motorcycles, instead of ambulances, to maneuver through stalled traffic.
In addition, air pollution is worsening. Even with elevated standards for emissions, which are now stricter than those of many states in the United States, the addition of more cars plays a major role in causing acid rain and smog. State-run media reported that smog caused by vehicle emissions enveloped some regions of China for more than 200 days in 2009.
And although scientists still debate whether some forms of vehicle pollution travel from China to other countries, as dust storms do, there is little doubt that a warming love affair with private cars in China is creating the greenhouse gas emissions to help warm the planet.
Mass transit falls behind mass migration
China's city planners have tried to minimize these problems. Over the past few years, they have added fleets of buses, extended hundreds of miles of urban rail lines and rolled out new solutions like bus-only lanes to convince drivers to drop their car keys.
This has gotten some Chinese out from behind the wheel. Che Liqing, a 29-year-old salesman at an American pharmaceutical company in Beijing, bought a car three years ago but hardly ever drives it to work.
"Riding the subway is convenient, and I don't need to worry about traffic," said Che. However, he added that he does worry about whether he can squeeze into the often overcrowded train.
As about 13 million people flooded into cities in each of the recent years, the fast-growing commuting demand hampered any efforts to make public transport rides a friendly experience.
In the Chinese capital, for instance, subway doors can't be closed at peak hours until yellow-uniformed attendants use their white-gloved hands to cram the last few riders into the train.
Che said the experience with buses is the same, if not even worse. Although he still views public transport as the best option, Che said that it isn't the case for many other car owners who pursue comfort.
To keep car owners like Che riding the subway and to win more drivers' hearts, Chinese cities have promised to increase urban rail systems threefold by 2015. Meanwhile, bus rapid transit, a system that has proved a popular solution in other crowded areas like Mexico City, will grow 10 times here.
Jacking up the price of driving
Still, those measures may not unclog roads.
Liu Zhi, lead infrastructure specialist from the World Bank's Beijing office, pointed out that without traffic control on private cars in the space-squeezed cities, public transport can't work in an efficient way.
Although cities are stretching their underground transportation networks like spiderwebs, new lines are too costly to reach every corner of the city. Thus, the success of the campaign to fight traffic and air pollution relies on whether cities can provide commuters a smooth bus ride, Liu said.
Already, Beijing has been shifting gears on this issue. This year, for the first time, the city slapped a quota on the number of vehicles that can be registered, cutting the number of its newly added cars by nearly 70 percent compared with 2010 levels. But this approach is unlikely to get copied by others.