Drivers offered a route out of traffic snarl-ups as firms roll out new idea
BEIJING - With more Chinese people getting behind the wheel every day, traffic jams are a major headache in most cities but the gridlock has become an opportunity for some entrepreneurs who are offering an escape route - for a price.
Drivers who get stuck in traffic in some cities can now get on their mobile phones and call for a substitute to take their cars to their destinations while the frustrated drivers are whisked away on the back of a motorcycle.
"One important source of our customers is female drivers, some of whom feel physically uncomfortable if they wait in cars in traffic for too long," said Huang Xizhong, manager of a company that offers the service in Wuhan, the capital of Central China's Hubei province.
"Other customers are those with urgent dates or business meetings to go to, and those who have flights to catch and can't afford to wait in a traffic jam for too long."
Huang said he started offering the service last year after receiving a number of calls from people who were stuck in traffic.
The service has also hit the streets in Jinan, capital of East China's Shandong province. There, drivers can be bailed out of a back-up for upwards of 400 yuan ($60), according to a report in Guangzhou Daily.
But some businesses that offer driving services in other cities are hesitating to jump on the bandwagon.
"There is a demand for the service, but it's risky," said a manager surnamed Zhang at a Beijing automobile service company.
Zhang said his employees would face hazards if he started to offer the service, such as having to drive motorcycles into crowded areas and carve their way through traffic, possibly on freeways, in order to pick up clients.
Under current traffic regulations, it is illegal for motorcyclists to use the freeway, he explained.
"As far as I know, no company in Beijing has started that kind of business," Zhang added.
And while the idea has taken off elsewhere, car drivers in the capital have their reservations, saying they could not trust a stranger to look after their vehicles.
Lei Ting, an office worker with a multinational software company in Beijing, said: "I'd rather wait in my car in a traffic jam if I did not feel that the company or the driver was trustworthy."
But as one of the world's most congested cities, it's easy to imagine that there will be room for such a service in the capital.
According to a global survey conducted by IBM last year, Beijing is tied with Mexico City as having the "world's worst commute". Some 84 percent of respondents said they spent an hour on the road each day on average in each direction.
In a major effort to tackle the gridlock in the capital, the municipal government launched a new set of traffic measures on Dec 23, including sharply limiting the number of new cars it will allow on city streets. In the coming year, the capital will only approve the registration of 240,000 new vehicles - about one-third of last year's number.
The limitations in a city of more than 19 million residents sparked a frenzy of activity among would-be car buyers who scrambled to register their names with the online lottery system that will decide which residents will get to buy a new car.
Throughout China, congestion is becoming a major problem, not only in mega-cities such as Beijing and Shanghai but smaller ones and even some county seats in coastal provinces.
Cao Yin contributed to this story.