Post Olympic Beijing

The opportunity to make regular pilgrimages to China to witness the ever changing and expanding vehicle market there is both a privilege and a burden. The privilege, is to see how much progression has taken place in terms of automotive design, engineering and marketing as well as marvel at how incredibly the built environment continues to grow; the burden, is coming face to face with the chronic congestion and pollution that millions of new cars added to the roads each year, alongside massive industrial activity, brings to its cities.

Beijing seemed particularly polluted this year.  On my last visit in Spring 2008 there was still traffic chaos but due to massive measures imposed by the authorities to clean up the air before the Olympics that summer – reportedly halting local construction projects and coal-fire power stations to restricting vehicle use to odd-number-plated cars on some days and even-numbered ones on others – the pollution seemed slightly less suffocating back then.

Traveling to any motorshow on the first press day can be very busy – anyone who’s visited Geneva or Paris will know that – but Beijing’s Auto China on the first press day is in another league.  And it started so promisingly.  A chauffeur-driven Mercedes S-Class limousine would normally be a great way to get anywhere and seeing the cantilevered CCTV building by Rem Koolhaas looming majestically from my rear seat window early on my journey was an incredible sight and sign of the greatness and power of 21st Century Beijing. But the traffic soon built up and in another 20 minutes I was caught in a gridlock so severe nothing seemed to be moving in any direction. Then something incredible happened: In a bid to find a new way, the three-lane stream of traffic heading towards the motorshow started crossing over into two of the three lanes intended for cars traveling in the other direction, blocking all but one lane of traffic for those wanting to go anywhere else.  Watching a steady trickle of passengers getting out of their cars in frustration, I joined them – and walked the last mile or so to the show on foot.  Colleagues, who had taken the underground train, reported slightly quicker progress, but on carriages packed so full of commuters that it was beyond unpleasant.

While the excitement around the Beijing car show is great for the global auto industry’s growth as Western markets remain weak, unless this particular vehicular gold-rush is tempered with real solutions to the problems it also creates, I can see Chinese customer enthusiasm dampening all too quickly – especially in the traffic-choked big cities.  The dream of freedom cars fulfill, can only be realised if the car can move freely and the air the driver breathes when they get to their destination is clean enough to live in happily.

Back at my hotel, from the wonderful vantage point high up on the 63rd floor, the huge CCTV building is only about half a mile away, but it stayed barely visible, day or night [see photo]. Most depressingly of all I didn’t properly see the sun the whole time I stayed in Beijing.  And unlike Stevie Wonder’s famous lyric, I couldn’t blame it for not shining.  It was there all right, but it’s light was so diminished by its smoggy shroud it had become but a dull vague disc in the distance.  Only one business trip experience retold and far from definitive, but one that left me with a heavy heart nonetheless.