SHANGHAI -- In many Chinese cities, traffic jams get worse and worse every day. Wherever you drive in Beijing or Shanghai, you are bound to be stuck in traffic for some time.
People are pointing fingers at the seemingly unstoppable growth of auto sales. While reporting on the traffic gridlock on Beijing's streets, CCTV recently displayed a chart showing how fast the city's fleet has expanded.
Other official media have even proposed restrictions on the number of cars a family may own. But the root cause of traffic congestion in Chinese cities is not the nation's expanding car fleet -- it's poor urban planning.
Take Beijing, where motorists often find themselves stuck in traffic for hours. Originally, the Beijing municipal government planned to keep the city's population below 18 million by 2020.
But the city's intention to control its population has been overwhelmed by its desire to grow the local economy. The city government wants Beijing to be China's political, cultural, industrial and financial center. As a result, the city has gained more than 5 million inhabitants annually over the past three years.
Beijing's population reached 17.6 million in 2009, nearly approaching the target set for 2020.
As Beijing's population grows, the city has expanded outward. According to the latest available figures, Beijing's urban area increased to 1,289 square kilometers (801 square miles) by 2007, up from 490 square kilometers (305 square miles) in 2000.
In the face of explosive population growth, the city has failed to expand its public transport system at an equally fast pace. At the moment, only 40 percent of Beijing's local residents use public transport.
The city's lack of mass transit has triggered an explosive growth of car ownership. In the first half of this year, Beijing's vehicle population grew by 345,000 units, expanding the total fleet to 4.4 million units. If this growth rate continues, the fleet will top 7 million units by 2015.
Traffic congestion is getting worse in other Chinese cities, too. In 2009, Shanghai's population increased by 330,000 people to 19.2 million residents. The city endures severe traffic congestion throughout the day.
China's municipal governments must curb their urge to turn each city into a metropolis. Unless cities improve their urban planning, residents will conclude that cars do more harm than good, and China's auto industry will suffer accordingly.