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Stuck along life’s highway

Slightly Skewed Jack Knox "So," I said, nodding at the story in the paper, "that traffic jam in China has finally eased." She sipped her morning coffee. "Ten thousand vehicles, stopped dead on the freeway for 10 days or more.

Slightly Skewed

Jack Knox

"So," I said, nodding at the story in the paper, "that traffic jam in China has finally eased."

She sipped her morning coffee. "Ten thousand vehicles, stopped dead on the freeway for 10 days or more. Can you imagine?"

Well yes, I could, seeing as we were stuck in a frozen river of immobile metal stretching down the highway into town. "Don't you think you should go back to your own car?" I asked.

She glanced at the next lane, where a spider was spinning a cobweb between her empty Honda and the transport truck stopped in front. "I suppose so," she sighed, gathering her things. "It was nice to meet you."

"Likewise. What time do you start work?"


I looked at my watch: 6:30, and she still had eight kilometres to go.

"You're going to be late."

She shook her head. "Nine p.m., not a.m. I should just make it."

If she was lucky. Commuter traffic on the Trans-Canada into Victoria moves like the line outside the women's washroom at a Michael Buble concert, inching forward, then stopping altogether, the destination nowhere in sight.

Drivers frantically do the Gotta Pee Polka while stopped in place, just like Michael Flatley in Riverdance.

"Still beats China," said my new friend, exiting the car.

Couldn't deny that. Something like 10,000 vehicles were caught in a 100-kilometre traffic jam on a major freeway west of Beijing that began Aug. 14. In the worst-hit stretches, cars moved less than a kilometre a day. It could be mid-September before the congestion clears altogether.

Stranded motorists were been gouged by bicycle-borne vendors selling food and water for prices that range from merely extortionate to downright Disneyland. Cigarettes were going for five times as much as in stores. Some drivers complained gas was siphoned from their tanks as they slept in their stranded cars or under their trucks.

Most of the Chinese just took their plight in stride. "Still beats the Malahat on a summer Sunday," they said.

Well, no, but that's what they would have said had they seen the constipation caused when all those end-of-vacation Victorians try to drive home at the same time, squeezing into a funnel that can't handle the flow.

The Malahat pass handles all the traffic between Victoria and the rest of Vancouver Island, and tends to get clogged on Friday nights when everyone flees town as though it were on fire (or perhaps being invaded by Tamils) and Sunday nights when they slink home again.

"Look at all these people driving to the same place, one to a car," we lament. At least, that's what we would say if we weren't all alone in our cars, as we feel is our right.

We all know that something has to give eventually. Canadian commuting will get slower and slower and slower. The Beijing traffic jam, blamed on a combination of road work and an increase in trucks hauling coal from Inner Mongolia, is just one sign of an environmentalist's nightmare: The Chinese are starting -- just starting -- to drive like us, the government treating car culture as an economic driver, as it were.

Chinese auto sales reached 13.64 million in 2009, overtaking the U.S. for top spot, according to Agence France Presse. Beijing, which had one million cars in 1997, will top five million by year's end, and could hit seven million by 2015. That's almost as many as the Costco parking lot on a back-to-school Saturday.

To ease the congestion and pollution, Beijing drivers are already banned from using their cars one day a week, the day being determined by the last digit on their licence plates. We think that's a very sensible solution for China, but an absolutely awful one for Canada, where we need to drive our cars wherever and whenever we want, like to the gym or the Earth Day walk.

OK, maybe our cars-per-capita rate dwarfs that of China (The Economist estimates there are 563 cars for every 1,000 Canadians, ranking us fifth in the world) but hey, we were here first.

Stuck in a two-week traffic jam? Big deal. We'll be stuck in our cars until they force us out.