for National Geographic News
China's roadways, once synonymous with throngs of bicycles, are experiencing an explosion of car traffic driven by the nation's growing consumer class.
"As China has become more wealthy, the growing middle class does want to purchase cars," said Jennifer L. Turner, coordinator of the China Environment Forum for the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
China is the world's fastest growing auto market. According Chinese government statistics, over two million cars were sold in the country in 2003, a nearly 80 percent increase over 2002.
While last year's SARS virus scare spurred a brief spike in auto sales among consumers anxious to shun public transportation, most Chinese car buyers today shop for the same reasons as other global consumers: They seek the comfort, convenience, and status of car ownership.
Only three of every thousand Chinese own a car today. But in an economically expanding nation of some 1.3 billion people, it's not hard to envision that China could someday become the world's largest auto market. Foreign automakers have long seen the Asian giant's potentialand spent billions to gain market share in China.
In China, Audis, BMWs, and Japanese and U.S. luxury car brandsall made in partnership with Chinese companiesshare roads with more affordable Chinese models, which sell for between U.S. $4,000 and $7,000.
While most car owners in China today are urban and wealthy, experts say cheaper models and growing used-car markets in the future are likely to expand car ownership to consumers with more moderate incomes.
Rising Gridlock, Fatalities
But more cars on Chinese roads, however, mean more headachesthe sort that many Western drivers are all too familiar with.
Planners in China, for example, now contend with stifling traffic patterns. Larger cities are reshaping neighborhoods and even banning bicycles from some roadways to address congestion, but these measures don't always work.
"In Beijing, in particular, the traffic jams are incredible," Turner said, noting that the city already has six ring roads (or beltways) and is planning three more.
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