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Controlling the world’s car capital

world Updated: May 13, 2011 00:09 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
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The conference room looked ordinary — until the beige curtains were parted to reveal a sci-fi set up on its other side. But the scene on the gigantic wall-sized screen was hardly fiction.

Through the second-storey glass wall, we peered at a maze of coloured dots, grids and live videos on the screen. Every vehicle, policeman and patrol car on the major avenues of the world’s largest car market was mapped before us. The row of policemen in blue uniforms sitting before the screen can shadow any vehicle in Beijing.

“It took Beijing 48 years to acquire one million vehicles,’’ deputy director Li Shaoming told during a rare media tour of the traffic command centre on Thursday. “But it took only two years and seven months to reach four million vehicles. This year, we will have the fifth million.’’

The record gridlock has pushed Beijing to innovate transport systems and policies like no other capital. The three-year-old system, the brain that keeps Beijing moving, is housed in a plain white multistorey building from where authorities controlled road security during the 2008 Olympics.

As China became the second largest economy last year, its surge in car ownership exceeded the US market. The new cars took Beijingers back to bicycle speeds even on multi-lane ring roads. Post-Olympics, the command centre has a priority to manage speed and enable public buses to move faster.

On the grid, red, yellow and green lights represent speed. Red lights indicated traffic moving below 20 kmph. The data is compared to four-week old data to spot trends. Another system enables the monitors to rush the nearest patrol car to accident sites. The technology is being expanded to all Beijing expressways. “We have 7,000 traffic police and 28,000 km of roads,’’ said Li. “Every policeman has a GPS handset.’’

In 2010, a 100-km jam hit headlines from the Beijing-Tibet road. Officials have since slapped a quota on monthly car sales in Beijing, hiked parking fees and made drunk driving a criminal offense. “In the next five years, we’ll focus on violation surveillance, traffic monitoring and flow detection,’’ said Li. The Chinese know how to keep an eye on you. About 600 cameras watch Beijing’s main roads.

“Frankly, we don’t have enough cameras," said an official.