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October 1, 2012

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Traffic chaos as holiday begins

Bored drivers and passengers walked their dogs, played tennis and even kept fit by doing push-ups yesterday as they waited to get moving after traffic on many of the country's major expressways ground to a halt on the first day of the eight-day national holiday.

It was the first time in decades that the expressways had been declared toll-free for the holidays and, as expected, there was a huge increase in the number of cars on the roads.

Most expressways connecting Shanghai to nearby provinces, such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang, as well as between downtown and the suburbs, saw serious gridlocks with long lines of slow-moving vehicles.

Problems began even before dawn and the congestion got worse over the morning with numerous outbound vehicles stuck in near-motionless traffic.

Drivers posted pictures of the traffic jams online using their mobile phones and the situation became one of the hottest topics on Weibo, the country's popular social networking platform.

Photographs showed several people walking their dogs alongside long lines of traffic on the Shanghai-Kunming Expressway yesterday morning.

And on expressways in other provinces, drivers and passengers were photographed playing tennis and keeping fit as they waited for the traffic to clear.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of drivers started lining up in front of toll booths as early as before midnight in Shanghai with queues of cars some 3,000 meters long waiting for the toll-free period to begin.

The local highway administration said they opened free access for cars on the city's expressways at 11:50pm, 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Around 52,000 vehicles entered and left by local expressways in the first hour after midnight, three times the usual number. Expressway traffic reached a peak at 4:30am, more than two hours earlier than usual on the first day of the national holiday, the administration said.

By 5pm yesterday, the city expressways had handled 720,000 vehicles.

Shanghai traffic police said there had been an increase in the number of minor collisions on expressways yesterday, which aggravated the gridlocks.

The eight-day holiday began yesterday with the Mid-Autumn Festival and continues today with the National Day holiday. Most of the expressways in the country are going toll free for passenger cars this week.

Beijing traffic authorities also reported long queues of cars from 6am in front of toll gates for all its expressways as many outbound passengers hit the road early. The Beijing Traffic Management Bureau also reported an increase in minor road accidents yesterday morning, incidents which aggravated the heavy traffic on many expressway sections.

A driver surnamed Zhang said he was stuck on the road leading to the outbound toll gate of Xihongmen on the Beijing-Kaifeng Expressway, and he could not see the end of the long queue of vehicles. "Some cars even drove onto the hard shoulders of the roads,'' he told Xinhua news agency.

At the Dujiakan Toll Gate on the Beijing-Shijiazhuang Expressway, police patrol cars used megaphones to keep waiting passenger cars off the emergency vehicle lanes.

The toll gate tallied 17,000 outbound vehicles passing through from midnight to 6am, which was four times the figure recorded during the same period of the previous year, when cars were charged tolls, Xinhua reported.

The Beijing traffic bureau forecast that the first and the last two days of the holiday will see traffic peaks on the expressways.

Meanwhile, in the southern city of Guangzhou, heavy congestion appeared in front of expressway toll gates as early as 10pm on Saturday, when it took 50 minutes for a car to move 1 kilometer.

Zeng Zhaokang, head of the Guangdong Provincial Transport Bureau, said many cars had queued up to wait for the holiday toll-free policy to come into effect at midnight. Zeng said the traffic peak occurred in the first five hours of yesterday.

The number of travelers using highways nationwide totaled 85 million by yesterday evening, up 13.3 percent year on year, the Ministry of Transport said.

China's expressway toll fees are among the highest in the world. A toll-free policy on holidays has long been called for by many private car owners as it could help cut their travel expenses considerably. In response, the State Council issued the toll-free road policy for national holidays in August.

The tollgate fee plan will save drivers 180 yuan (US$28.6) on a drive from Shanghai to Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province and 215 yuan on a trip to Sanqingshan Mountain in Jiangxi Province. It costs 40 yuan to drive from Shanghai to Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, and 85 yuan to Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province.

Yesterday's gridlock chaos, however, stirred online debate on whether the new toll-free scheme was more trouble than it was worth for motorists.


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