Domestic Affairs

Traffic should go to the dogs

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-07-14 09:25
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Beijing and Mexico City have the worst traffic in the world according to an IBM commuter pain index reported earlier this month. The survey of 8,192 motorists in 20 cities on six continents reached that conclusion based upon issues like average commuter time, time stuck in traffic, and drivers' experiences of stress.

In a seemingly unrelated news article, newspapers reported in early July that Beijingers were being asked to consider a proposal by the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference to regulate dogs in the city according to breed, not size. Under the proposal, dogs larger than 35 centimeters would no longer be automatically banned, bringing Beijing into accord with other big Chinese cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, which do not restrict dogs according to size.

Although both are urban living issues, dealing with traffic congestion and dog restrictions can certainly be handled independently. Still, decisions about dogs and traffic say something essential about the development of a modern city and the types of things it chooses to prioritize.

I vote for more dogs and less traffic.

I'm biased. I recently had to put down our 16-year-old dog; she had become nearly as much a part of our family as our two kids. I won't provide a testimonial here, but talk to nearly any dog owner and you will find that they have forged a bond with their pet that suggests something pretty special.

Moving here from France, where people love dogs, I was astounded at how canine phobic many Chinese are. In France, you can take dogs most anywhere, whereas in China, my wife and I couldn't even get a cab to pick us up with our dog when we tried to bring her to a veterinary clinic. I think that would change if people became used to seeing more and more people walking leashed dogs on the sidewalk.

So, I'm all for allowing bigger dogs in Beijing with a couple of caveats. First, dogs are not people and no matter how much pet owners love their dogs, those animals should be confined to certain areas and definitely kept out of children's playgrounds. Second, Beijing should study what Europe has done with placing containers with plastic doggie bags throughout cities and ticket people who do not pick up after their dogs. Third, dogs, even small ones, should always be kept on a leash, unless the city establishes certain dog grounds where owners can take their pets to roam free.

I am also somewhat terrified of cars and other motorized vehicles in Beijing. I don't own a car and don't really trust that cab drivers who drive after 36 hours awake behind the wheel make the best decisions.

As to the traffic, I think the city needs to become more aggressive about providing disincentives to drive. Beijing is expected to add 800,000 new cars to the road this year and while that's a boon for car makers and dealers, it's an ecological, health, and safety hazard for a city that already has the planet's worst self-reported traffic mess.

Here are a couple of obvious solutions. Limit families to one car. Expand incentives to carpool or take mass transit. Begin to close down areas of the downtown to motorized vehicles (other than bikes) and establish cheap or no cost bicycle loaner programs in those areas.

These suggestions are likely to be resisted by those who profit from the traffic industry. However, we should not let that deter us from trying to improve our collective commuter pain. Here's an idea that will benefit all of us. Walk your dog more and drive your car less.

The author is an adjunct professor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.