Overloaded infrastrucure

Reports of a 10 day traffic jam in China bring into sharp relief questions around the infrastructures of global urbanisation. This jam started on the 14th August1 and may last until September. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reports that drivers on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou highway are ‘inching along little more than a third of a mile a day’. The Guardian interviews a driver that took 3 days to get through the jam.  It makes the 2003 closure of the UK’s M11 by snowfall seem small by comparison.

At the heart of this failure of infrastructure lies two important contributory factors. On the one hand car traffic in China is rapidly expanding. As urbanisation gives rise to grater wealth as well as greater distances to travel, car culture is taking hold as it has done across the urbanised global north. In 2009 13.6 million vehicles were sold in China, leading China to surpass the US in car sales. As volume of traffic rises, infrastructure cannot cope and jams become more commonplace. This is a familiar story in  urbanising zones of the global south such as Lagos and Sao Paulo.

The Guardian points, however, to another contributory factor – namely the transport along China’s road’s of coal mined from newly found deposits. Heavy traffic and inadequate infrastructure lead to repairs which themselves gave rise to jams.  The bigger picture here is the co-dependent relationship between urbanisation and fossil fuels. This is a question that the global north has failed to properly address, perpetuating car cultures that demand oil2. Conceptually, this raises the question of the type of fossil-infrastructure hybrid that forms the material substrate of contemporary urban subjectivity.

Overall then, this traffic jam both offers insight into the ‘complex ecology of political subjectivity’3 characteristic of cities as well as posing urgent questions about how we might achieve sustainable global urbanisation.

  1. Reports on the date the jam started differ with the Wall Street Journal referring to 13th August.
  2. indeed the Deepwater Horizon disaster might easily be linked to US car culture.
  3. A phrase I used to describe the constitutive role played by infrastructure in urban subjectivity in a recent piece in Security Dialogue.

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