Must See: China's Driving Dream and Its $6000 Car

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As this recent must-see National Geographic documentary on driving in China reminds us (part 1 is above, the rest below), China has fallen head over heels for the car. Attached though I am to my Forever bike, I can almost see why: A bustling Chinese metropolis like Beijing is increasingly less conducive to walking or biking, with pedestrian-unfriendly streets, crowded and inconvenient public transportation and enormous distances. (As a friend told me last night, getting home wouldn't be such a big deal: "It's no different than making the trip between Brussels and Antwerp," she said.)

Of course, adding cars to the streets -- 1,500 a day in Beijing alone -- doesn't help anybody: Beijing has the most sluggish traffic, smoggy air and dangerous roads I've ever encountered. Still, to Chinese who are sick of their hellish commute and growing in wealth, the car is the ultimate object of desire, much like it was in the United States in the 1950s. Maureen Fan, in a good recent piece in the Washington Post, compares it to the US's obsession with television during the Golden Years. But those comparisons can't describe the scale and the style of China's driving yen -- and the impact it is having on the rest of the world.

More video after the jump.

Part 2: Environmental pioneer Sheri Liao laments Beijing's killer traffic during International Car Free Day, going car shopping, David Dunne's analysis of the Chinese car market, a trip to the sprawling campus and factory of Geely,

Part 3: Geely CEO Li Shufu's ambitious plans for expansion to the U.S., Detroit's plans for growing in China, formula 1 racing dreams, and a car club outing.

Part 4: Buying the car, a visit to the Traffic Bureau, a taste of driving dangers, and learning how to drive.

Part 5: Racing around Beijing's Second Ring, building Beijing's fast-growing ring roads, China's booming demand for oil, and China's automotive dream and nightmare

Some thoughts:

Car ownership in China, the world's second biggest auto market after the U.S., is surging. It has grown by 300 percent in the past six years, and imports hit an estimated 300,000 cars in 2007, a 30 percent increase from the year before. Last year, 4.7 million cars were sold in China, up 23.4 percent from 2006.

Cheap Chinese cars are coming to a city near you. Geely, profiled in the documentary above, was once rumored to be bringing a cheap sedan to the States. In China, their small sedans go or about $6000. Last month, the Chinese made their biggest presence yet at the Detroit Auto Show; one group of automakers showed off a $14,000 SUV they're hoping to deliver next year. Even cheaper: Indian auto maker Tata's Nano car, selling for $2500 domestically and set to reach Western markets in a safer, cleaner version at $5000. (Chinese cars are not known for their safety or their emissions standards. But they do have better fuel economy than American cars.)

Cars are becoming a primary source of the smog over China's cities. The traffic they create is also motivating city planners to build more roads, rather than spend funds on public transit. This doesn't reduce traffic, but rather creates an even greater incentive to drive, and makes cities even less pedestrian-friendly.

China drives three percent of the world's cars but has a staggering 21 percent of its traffic fatalities, more than any other country. Peter Hessler's New Yorker piece a few months back, in which he attends driving school in Beijing, helps explain why: turning signals are optional, and at driving school, lunch is washed down with bottles of beer.

China's growing demand for oil has seen it controversially searching in Africa, expanding ties with governments like Sudan, where two-thirds of domestic oil production goes to the Chinese. As a member of the UN Security Council, China has repeatedly protected Khartoum over its role in the Darfur genocide, insisting that the problem is a domestic one. This has led Eric Reeves, Mia Farrow and others to brand this year's Summer Games in Beijing "the Genocide Olympics."
Cars are changing the way people live in megacities. "People who live far away from you who are not supposed to appear in your life will be brought into your life. Car clubs are a good place to meet new friends," one car enthusiast tells the Post. Better public transit and smart urban design -- including creating public parks, more human-scale streets, and micro-centers -- would be more sustainable solutions.

The best hope for China's transportation future lies in both government policy and consumer awareness. China must create incentives for fuel efficiency and public transportation; foreign automakers, with assurances that their technology will not be copied, can help by transferring technology like hybrid systems. Just as, if not more importantly, China's American-style romance with the car will need to be tempered by a recognition of just how dangerous that relationship can be.

Also on Treehugger:
To Chinese, Cars First, then Sustainable Consumption, Why China Loves Transformers (And Why We Should All Be A Little Worried, China's Cars Come in Green: the Shanghai Auto Show, Chang'an Rolls Out Its First Hybrid, China Cars: Public Enemy No. 1, The Race to Build a Car for Less than $3000