Coal to Blame for China's Epic Traffic Jam?

By now, the unprecedented 11-day traffic jam on a Chinese highway leading to Beijing has invited all kinds of commentary about China's urban planning, growing car culture, and so on.

But wait, there's another energy angle!  

"The police blame the monstrous jam on highway roadwork, compounded by minor accidents and a few breakdowns," the Christian Science Monitor writes. "In fact, the mega blockage - the second in two months on a stretch of road about 130 miles northwest of the capital - is a tale of deceit and criminality that speaks volumes about China's breakneck economic development. And behind the traffic chaos stands King Coal."

Much of the coal in China is now loaded onto trucks rather than freight trains because China's rail system has numerous bottlenecks and is often over-taxed, which ends up creating supply shortages to the coast. Though it's impossible to know how many of the trucks are actually loaded with coal, the Christian Science Monitor is right that there's a good chance many of them are delivering "black gold" to the urban centers--whether the products are legal or illegal.

The highway on which the jam has occurred leads to Inner Mongolia--now the biggest coal-producing province in China. Will less dependence on coal solve China's traffic woes, as is implied in the CSM piece? Not likely. But judging by CSM's great photo series of the traffic stoppage, trucks bearing heavy loads of commodities do seem to be culprits in this current saga.

And this CCTV video too (in Chinese), also shows an endless stretch of Chinese 18-wheelers crawling along:




So, any ballpark estimates of how many coal trucks are out there right now? 

And in light of this development, maybe the gargantuan bus idea isn't so far-fetched after all. 
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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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