China’s new straddling bus, which debuted in Qinhuangdao as a test run on Tuesday, is a remarkable invention for relieving congestion, and thus, car exhaustion in cities like Beijing where one can sit in traffic for over an hour to go two miles. The transit elevated bus (TEB) could replace 40 conventional buses and increase road space. However, this new technology may not completely solve congestion and car emissions problems, since it may not deter the growing number of wealthy citizens from consuming cars to display their prosperity.
During thesis interviews in Beijing in 2014, a family insisted on driving through 2 ring roads to pick me up, only to drive back out through several ring roads to take me to dinner. The father, while sitting in traffic, pointed towards the distance at mountains, which are not usually visible through the smog. He commented on the geography of the city and how the surrounding mountains trap in the smog by blocking wind flow. Throughout dinner, he continued to comment on how construction sites in the city could reduce dust pollution by using nets or watering down dirt mounds, and how ill-informed farmers on the outskirts of the city burn crops, which also contributes to the haze.
A similar instance occurred when an interviewee, who worked by the Beijing airport, drove into the city to pick me up, all the while talking about various environmental laws she knew of, and then drove back out towards the airport to give me a tour of her company.
The man, CEO of an international company, and the woman, head of her department in an international company, were clearly well educated, especially on environmental issues. Certainly their insisting to pick me up was partially a display of hospitality, but this behavior also contradicted their knowledge.
Cars are more than a form of transportation, they are a visible expression of wealth to fellow Chinese citizens as well as to foreigners like me. A few families I interviewed had multiple cars so that on odd days (when only cars with license plates ending in odd numbers can drive), they can drive their other car. Multi-car ownership serves as convenience to circumvent the rules, as well as a representation of fortune and success.
Car buying has also become a status of wealth for children of the “yuan percent.” These fuerdai, or second generation rich kids, and xiaohuangdi, or little emperors, siblingless children from the one-child policy, may be showered with dozens or even hundreds of cars both in China and in the United States.
As this affluent part of the population grows and as their consumptive tastes change, technologies or policies that encourage green behavior may not be effective. The government must pay close attention to various demographics as it continues to roll out policies for controlling traffic and car emissions. A few years ago, the central government was firmly against using a congestion charge to control traffic, because it would discriminate against poorer residents that must drive long distances each day to make a living. However, in May, the central government was finalizing initial steps to create a congestion charge. This charge, similar to fines for driving cars on prohibited days, will probably feel like pennies to wealthier residents while crippling poorer ones.
Car consumption in China is predicted to increase and surpass the United States in sales of luxury cars and cars per person in less than a decade. There are many other concerns that have been expressed, as well, including logistics of the bus’ interaction with other cars and crossing bridges. New green technology should continue to be encouraged, despite these logistical challenges, and this Chinese company deserves credit for so quickly realizing an idea that was only conceived in May. But the policies implementing technologies in society should aim to be inclusive and not disregard affluence-driven behaviors that increase pollution. If a single elevated bus replaces 40 regular buses, but 100 cars are added to the road, the impact of this new futuristic invention may be lost.