Clifford Coonan: Gridlock hell is an everyday event in Beijing

There are plans for a bus that will straddle two lanes, allowing cars to pass underneath
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The Independent Online

Of the many pleasures Beijing has to offer, sitting in a sweaty car in gridlocked traffic on one of its ring roads for an hour is not one of them. China is the world's biggest consumer of cars, a point which becomes apparent while driving in the nation's capital.

The number of vehicles in the city exceeded four million as of November last year, and getting around can be hell. Beijing traffic is like water, finding its own level no matter how many lanes are on offer.

A large percentage of these four million are first-time drivers, which makes negotiating the traffic all more hair-raising. China's total number of on-road vehicles reached 63 million in 2009, and this is set to rise to 75 million this year. Sometimes it seems all of them take to the streets of Beijing just when I need to get somewhere.

My own car is a rattling old Beijing Jeep, which allows me safely to restrain my children while driving (most taxis don't have working seatbelts in the back) and to get out of the city at weekends to the breathtaking countryside at the Great Wall and beyond.

I use the hours stuck behind the wheel to catch up on the latest music, or listen to Chinese-language podcasts. You can listen to an entire cycle of Wagner's Ring waiting to get through the lights at the Second Ring Road at rush hour.

I've had my share of prangs, sometimes caused by my temper getting the better of me and my trying to force the Jeep through a hole through which even the tiny Chinese-made Xiali wouldn't fit.

During the week, I use the subway or taxis, which are cheap, if slow, but I can get a lot of work done in the back-seat of a cab in traffic, using my laptop and the 3G network.

Doing interviews in taxis is totally normal, and everyone is used to background noise, though the pollution seeps into the cab and often leaves you sore-throated by the time you get home. If possible, you try to avoid anything more than one appointment a day, because traffic makes anything outside of walking distance a trial.

The measures to deal with the traffic horror are increasingly imaginative, or dotty. Among the latest brainwaves is a new super-bus that will straddle a two-lane roadway, allowing cars to pass underneath. A prototype is expected on the streets in December, by which time the 60-mile traffic jam outside Beijing will hopefully have eased.