China’s 10 Day Traffic Jam – Exponential Growth at its Worst

The G110 outside of Beijing.

Now for a traffic update – if you’re on the G110 highway north of Beijing, don’t expect to do anywhere for a few days! A massive traffic jam has been clogging the G110 since sometime on August 14th, and has stretched to more than 60 miles at its longest. Thousands of commuters have been stuck on the road for days, living off of water and food sold to them by vendors wandering through the semi-parked cars. The jam is undoubtedly related to construction efforts on the G110 and which are not scheduled to be completed until mid-September. While there are some reports that the 10+ day traffic jam is starting to clear up, it may only be a matter of time before it forms again. What’s behind this driver’s nightmare? Explosive growth in both car ownership and the transportation of coal. Problems like these make you wonder if we’re getting closer to a technological singularity, or just wading deeper into a mire of materialism.

The construction on the G110 that began in August was necessary due to an increase in the number of large trucks that used the highway to transport goods. A large portion of these trucks are carrying coal, the fuel powering China’s recent economic growth. NPR reports that increases in the Beijing area coal traffic may be due to the smuggling of coal from Mongolia along a route with little bureaucratic oversight. Whether or not the coal is part of illicit trade, it is certainly a part of the Chinese mega-traffic jam.

A traffic jam more than 60 miles long? Ouch.

The other major part is increased car ownership. According to the LA Times, the Beijing area is adding cars at an astonishing rate of 1900 per day! Average speeds in the city during commuting times have slowed to less than 15 miles per hour (~25 kph). The number of drivers on the road is essentially negating the benefit of traveling in cars. Might as well ride a bike.

Logistical problems like this traffic jam are a little disheartening to someone who hopes that developments in technology will help solve many of the world’s leading problems. How are we going to solve world hunger, or avoid an energy crisis when we can’t even manage traffic. The mega-jam also shows that widespread adoption of a (newer) technology like the car (and maybe coal for that matter) can lead to large negative side-effects for which we may not be prepared.

But maybe that’s why we need to think more about accelerating technologies and exponential growth. China could have been massively expanded their highway systems years ago if they had been able to accurate project the rates of car adoption and truck traffic. Likewise, we may be able to avoid technology based problems if we can predict how that technology will grow in the years ahead. So look upon the Chinese Mega Traffic Jam and tremble my friends. If we don’t plan for the future we could be stuck in a similar situation. Only with robots.

[image credit: Associated Press, Wall Street Journal]
[source: NY Times, WSJ, LA Times, NPR]

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