The eight-lane Jingjin Expressway leading south out of Beijing, which opened last July just before the Beijing Olympics, is part of a network of 30,000 miles of new roads planned this decade. It's the biggest such expansion seen anywhere since President Eisenhower commissioned the U.S. interstate system in 1956.
U.S.-style suburbs, where cars are a virtual necessity, are sprouting everywhere. Cross-country road trips are the rage, as Beijing residents venture out to see sights such as the Great Wall or Confucius' Temple here.
Other sights on the journey were more uniquely Chinese, illustrative of a driving culture that is still in its infancy. Billboards along the highway advertise the 56%-proof alcohol known as baijiu, available at rest stops. Signs at new roadside gas stations with Western-style bathrooms politely advise customers, more accustomed to a simple hole in the floor, to please not stand on the toilets.
At one point, a large truck was barreling down the highway — backward — apparently to get back to a missed exit. China has one-seventh as many autos on the road as the USA, Dunne estimates, but nearly twice as many traffic deaths — 73,484 last year, according to the Chinese government.
"Good luck, and watch out for pedestrians" was the warning from Yao Yumei, an employee at TopOne, a car rental company in Beijing. She says she recently passed her driving test but, like many young Chinese with licenses, has yet to buy a car.
'We've all become lazy'
Xu Meng is a typical Chinese car owner, starting to explore his own country. He and his wife were engaged in that classic roadside ritual — checking their map to make sure they weren't lost — at a rest stop in Cangzhou, 140 miles from Beijing. It was the farthest they had ever driven from home, he says.
"I can hardly remember life without a car, when I had to bike to work. We've all become lazy," says Xu, 40, an engineer who uses his French-brand Citroen CX car mostly for his commute. Xu says 60% of his friends now drive, and the other 40% are learning. Down the road, toward Shanghai, salesman Zhang Jinghong seems like a road warrior in comparison. He's logged more than 125,000 miles in the past three years in his Volkswagen Passat.
"I have to see old customers and drum up new business," says Zhang, 48. "I don't really enjoy driving, but it's so convenient. And it's a status symbol."
The sudden burst of car ownership is grating to some people in a country that is still officially communist, despite massive economic changes since the 1980s. "Chinese society is unfair now, as some can afford cars and some cannot," says Liu Dongming, 41, a police officer who still wears a pin in honor of Chairman Mao Zedong, a former hard-line Chinese ruler.
Even Liu, though, has been unable to resist capitalist temptation — he was at a car wash with his new, still plateless Volkswagen Polo. He apparently is still trying to rationalize the purchase: "Like Mao said, 'Without contradictions, there would be no progress,' " Liu says.
Many Chinese seem unburdened by such worries, focused instead on cashing in on the travel boom. Signs outside Jinxiang urge drivers to sample the "world's best garlic." A billboard in Tengzhou advertises the "best potatoes under heaven."