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(DV) Choi: Not Just an American Dream







Not Just an American Dream
The US is Not the Only Place With
an Appetite for Energy Consumption

by Chohong Choi
July 27, 2006

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The Time: Year 2000

The Place: Lower Manhattan, New York

The Event: updated 19th Century technology meets little altered, age old technology

The Outcome: age old technology wins in a stinker.


In the above face-off, a brand spanking new SUV (or one that had just been washed) stopped right behind a horse belonging to New York’s Finest at a red light when nature called on the horse. It decided to do its business right there. Since the SUV was separated from the horse by just inches, its owner was unable to maneuver around the horse’s handiwork when the light turned green. Even worse, he had to roll his tires right over it, which then let out a Bronx cheer that was audible to those who were nearby.


A pile of horse's duty similar to the one in the incident (Not a scratch and sniff picture)


A number of pedestrians in the vicinity witnessed this one-sided confrontation and could not help but hee-haw at the unfortunate SUV and its occupants, with one bystander yelling “Dirty!” After all, what was the owner going to do -- get out of his vehicle and start a fight with all who just had their daily laugh at his expense? The police were right there.


Perhaps the horse was showing its contempt for its opponent by giving it the equine equivalent of a New York Welcome. The SUV never stood a chance. In the public mindset, a large, gracious, and disciplined animal, even when it voids on the street, will always prevail over a gas-guzzling goliath. That is one reason why the NYPD continues to maintain a mounted unit; it is simply good PR. [1] Moreover, horses are better at getting into and around tight spaces than vehicles, and most importantly, they require not a drop of gasoline for themselves. Their “fuel” would be fruits and vegetables, and the U.S. is more self-sufficient in producing these items than it is in meeting its petroleum needs, most of which (60 percent) it has to import. [2]


This was one of the horse’s last “triumphs” over the car. The days of horse manure as a common sight on the streets ended early in the 20th Century. Like auto exhaust, horse manure posed health problems. But one of its major benefits was that it could be used by farmers to grow crops. During the 19th Century, there was a more agrarian side to the Big Apple, and it was no coincidence that this was also when horses were still an integral part of the U.S. economy in both rural and urban areas.  Farmers from Brooklyn and Queens would buy horse manure to fertilize their crops (including hay for horses) and then sell these crops back to Manhattanites. Such a reciprocal system worked, and the produce was fresh. Once newer technologies allowed farms elsewhere in the country to out-compete New York’s farms and led to means of transport that did not require the horse as its power source, this system was broken. [3] Today, the food on an American’s plate has traveled an average of 1,500 miles (2,400 km) to get there, which means more oil consumption in the process. [4]


“We’ll Make More”


It is not farfetched to say that oil is the “blood” of the American economy. Rare is the American who does not depend on oil in some way, whether it is in the form of gasoline for one’s car, the fuel for one’s choice of public transportation, or as a means to heat one’s home. While there are other significant energy sources to power the latter two, very few cars in the U.S. run on anything other than oil.


Prior to recent years, and with only a few exceptions, Americans had long been accustomed to cheap oil. Cheap gas made it possible for Americans at even the working class level to afford cars, with many more affluent households owning more than one. It was about as sure a thing as death and taxes, and the only item among the three that was welcomed. The oil, auto, and rubber industries did what they could to ensure that Americans remain addicted to cars, including discouraging the use of urban and interurban public transportation systems through competition, legislation, propaganda, or just buying out those means of public transport that were not driven by the internal combustion engine and did not run on oil or over concrete. [5]


Americans under 45 have known nothing but free flowing oil. The routine was simple: pull up to a gas station, fill up, pay, and drive off. Long queues for gas were only found in history books. Our attitude towards gas was reminiscent of the line used by Jay Leno when he pitched Doritos in the late 1980s: “Crunch all you want, we’ll make more.” So I was in for a jolt when, during a return to the U.S. for Christmas in 2005, the vehicle I was riding in pulled up to an Exxon station in New Jersey to fill up, only to be waved off by the station attendant, who said they had run out of gas. That aroused our suspicions because that stretch of the highway was not particularly busy, and the Citgo station next door, where we ended up refueling, was happy to serve us.


Later, it was suggested to me that the Exxon station probably did not run out of fuel, but was in the process of raising its prices. [6] However, the station could have been forced to do so to compensate for its parent company’s price hikes. [7] So the most profitable oil company of all might have wanted to make a few extra bucks off its customers, many of whom were struggling to keep their tanks full and their homes heated that cold winter. (Maybe it was to help fund then-CEO Lee Raymond’s enormous retirement package?) Nothing like a touch of Scrooge to spread the holiday cheer. Expect the price gouging to last, because with the (re)concentration of the oil industry into fewer and fewer players, each remaining player will be in a stronger position to influence the supply and price of “black gold”. The industry’s motto might as well be: “Drive all you want, we’ll make more money off you.”


Party Poopers


There is another big reason why the price of oil has spiked. The world has awakened to the two newest and biggest contenders in the oil sweepstakes: China and India, which boast almost 2.5 billion potential consumers between them, and are two of the fastest expanding economies in the world. Their appetites for oil are growing almost geometrically, with China having a head start. As recently as the early 1990s, China was a net oil exporter; today, it is a net oil importer. [8] 


Increasingly affluent Chinese are subscribing to one of the goals of the American Dream -- a car in every garage -- with a frenzy. As of 2005, there were 27 million private cars registered in China (or the same number in the U.S. in 1942). [9] This sounds like a small slice of the some 800 million cars throughout the world [10] and does not include scooters and motorcycles, to which many Chinese who want something with more power than a bicycle, but cannot afford a car, have upgraded. But the Chinese love affair with cars has only begun, and they have no shortage of domestic and foreign suitors. Nearly every auto manufacturer wants a crack at the Chinese market. If a single manufacturer could appeal to, say, just 0.1 percent of China’s population, that would be 1.3 million riders right there.


Even though the car is not exactly a new form of machinery, it is quite new to most Chinese. Asians have historically taken to new technology quickly, and the car is one of the most prominent examples of this. In the U.S., registered vehicles outnumber registered drivers [11], but in some Chinese cities, the opposite is true. [12] The ease of obtaining a license in China (due to lax standards, corrupt officials issuing them to unqualified candidates for a bribe, the practice of paying someone else to take a licensing exam, and counterfeiting) has resulted in many reckless and incompetent drivers behind the wheel who pose a danger to themselves and others. [13]


The first time I went to China, in the 1980s, I found out just how dangerous crossing a street could be. Motor vehicles were starting to become common in China’s cities. Whereas in the West, drivers waiting for a light to change will usually let any late crossing pedestrians reach the other side before proceeding, in China they sprint off like jackrabbits once the light flashes emerald. There is no nudging, honking, or counting to seven Mississippi, and any stragglers in the way may as well not be there. If that is not enough to worry about, one also has to be aware of the direction from which traffic is coming. Although traffic in China is supposed to move on the right, like in the U.S., this rule is routinely broken -- usually by bicyclists and other light vehicles, but sometimes by larger vehicles too. U-turns are made liberally, even if there is a traffic jam on the opposite side of the road. It is no surprise, then, that traffic fatalities in China have mounted, lately averaging about 100,000 a year. In comparison, the U.S., which has many more cars being driven many more miles, has averaged a little over 40,000 car-related deaths during the same period. [14]


Despite some high profile mass transit developments in recent years, China has left no doubt that it favors those forms of transport that run on oil. The centers of some of its biggest cities have been redeveloped through the eviction of poorer residents to accommodate wealthier residents, who are more likely to drive cars. Less affluent residents have been moved to the fringes, where they must depend on inadequate public transportation (if any) to reach their jobs in the city center or, if they can afford to, take taxis or buy cars, scooters, or motorcycles to power their trips, which adds to the traffic and air pollution problems. Local governments are only too content to allow this to happen, as the sale of each car brings with it a hefty tax, which fattens government coffers. [15]


But China’s pro-car stance has led to massive traffic jams in its biggest cities, which have really infuriated drivers (who, of course, are the source of their own anger).  But public transportation is still so poor that many drivers feel compelled to stick with their cars, even if idling in a traffic jam has become a daily routine for them. Yet the demand for better public transportation is there. “The Soviet Communist Party did not do much for Moscow but it left behind a wonderful subway,” complained one Beijing driver. “Why has our Communist Party not done the same?” [16]


Why has Beijing not taken the lead, especially with the Olympics only two years away? Imagine the world’s best athletes sitting through congestion every day for two weeks as they shuttle between their lodgings and their sporting venues. They would probably be better served by walking, except that would subject them to China’s volatile traffic habits. Instead, the capital of China has fallen behind in the public transportation game and is scrambling to make up for lost years. Its subway system, the oldest in the country, opened for service in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, but it remained little more than a two-line operation with aging trains until recently, when a feverish expansion program has resulted in the opening of two more lines and the planned opening of six others in the coming years. [17] Still, by neglecting its subway for so long in favor of cars, Beijing allowed cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, each with a newer subway system, to surpass its own system in terms of quality and the extent of service.


If it were not for the “Green Olympics,” as China wants the 2008 Games to be known, Beijing probably would not have gone on its current crash course to spiff itself up. It has replaced some 34,000 buses and taxis with newer, cleaner vehicles and created bus only lanes on certain highways. It has phased out leaded gasoline, expelled many power plants and factories, and shut down coal mines outside the city. It plans to curtail car use during the games, but with 1,000 new cars joining the capital’s rat race every day, traffic will most likely worsen in the long run, with the Olympics a mere respite in Beijing’s downward spiral to smog hell. [18]


Abandoning Their Roots


Along the way, the Chinese are gradually eschewing the bicycle, which has long been the mode of individual transportation in the world’s most populous country.  In their efforts to provide for their growing car counts, China’s major cities (Shanghai in particular) are steadily restricting the areas bicycles could go, even though motor vehicles tend to be the culprits that clog their streets. This has angered bicyclists, whose numbers are still significant, and who think they have been unfairly blamed for the congestion. [19]


Status-conscious Chinese are turning their backs on their most versatile form of transportation. People from the West (including myself) have been awestruck by what a bicycle [20] can do in Chinese hands, especially when it comes to transporting goods. Almost anything can be moved on a bicycle, including many items most car owners would not dare put in their vehicles. The bicycle is the workhorse of China, and unlike a real horse, it does not leave its calling card on the street.



Watch out, clothesline! [21]

Would you risk your Escalade’s interior with this? [22]


Everything except the kitchen sink [23]

U-Haul on the cheap [24]


Do not walk or drive behind this guy. [25]

Dead meat on each side adds stability to the ride. [26]



It can be done. [27]


The Chinese can make use of every nook and cranny in their bicycles, while the same cannot be said for most cars and SUVs. Pedaling heavy loads on a bicycle is tiring, to be sure, and bicycles are more susceptible to adverse weather conditions than cars. But they are better able to get into and maneuver around tight spaces, less likely to cause massive traffic jams and fatal collisions, and do not need gas or emit pollution (except in their manufacture). By adopting a car culture, the Chinese are encountering the same problems Americans have put up with for over a century: more pollution, gridlock, accidents, road rage, sprawl, dependence on foreign energy sources, and less arable land.


The last factor ought to be of utmost concern to the Chinese Government, and it is.  As arable land is paved over for development, it is gone for good. Much of this pavement has been laid in the eastern part of the country, which also happens to have the best farmland. China is home to only seven percent of the world’s arable land after losing almost seven percent of its own in the past decade. [28] Consequently, it is importing some of its food (notably grains and soybeans) [29] and gradually adopting the factory farm concept [30], as increasing prosperity has also led to an increased demand for meat, which, if it does not level off, can lead to increasingly industrialized agriculture not just in China, but also in countries from which it imports its food.


Consider the scale of American agribusiness operations today, which produce enough for domestic consumption as well as for export. Now consider how much meat China and its foreign suppliers would have to produce if its entire population were to consume it on an American scale. Total, but not per capita, consumption of meat in China already surpassed that of the U.S. during the mid-1990s, when China had more arable land. [31] Industrialized farming (including fish farming) uses huge amounts of resources, particularly water, and China is running short on this too. [32] Furthermore, there is the tremendous amount of waste produced by factory farmed livestock, which has fouled up water sources wherever it congregates. Then there are those diseases (mad cow and avian flu, just to name two) that are associated with factory farming. China has served as a petri dish for some of the worst pandemics in history. Is it ready to tackle these problems when its enforcement of its own laws (not just those for food safety) has been questionable at best?

The SAR = Severe Asthmatic Region

© Lonely Planet

Let us not forget Hong Kong, which is supposed to be the most advanced city in China. In many ways it is, but not in the air pollution department. The Special Administrative Region’s air quality has been heading south for years -- so much that in 2002, travel guide publisher Lonely Planet put a picture of a smog-ridden Hong Kong skyline on the cover of its Hong Kong & Macau issue.  It caused quite a stir in “Asia’s World City,” which depended heavily on tourism to boost its then-sagging economy, while anti-air pollution advocates let out a big “I told you so.” [33]





From Time (Asia)

Lonely Planet has been kinder to Hong Kong in its most recent guide for the city, but the air has not.  That prompted the Asian edition of Time to release its own equally unflattering cover of the air pollution problem. “I told you so” had largely fallen on deaf ears.  As of this writing, despite a growing chorus of voices from a diverse lot (academics, health workers, the business community, environmentalists, legislators, and ordinary citizens) expressing concern over Hong Kong’s deteriorating air quality, the Hong Kong Government has done practically nothing. It prefers to blame industrial pollution from Guangdong Province drifting down to Hong Kong, which is true to an extent, but this explanation ignores several points: 1) many of those Guangdong factories are owned by Hong Kong entrepreneurs; 2) a substantial amount of Hong Kong’s air pollution is generated in the city itself by motor vehicles and power plants; and 3) Hong Kong’s compact layout has necessitated the construction of skyscrapers, which act as artificial canyons that help trap dirty air. [34]

What was arguably the most egregious manifestation of air pollution for the average person thus far in Hong Kong occurred this past February during the annual Hong Kong Marathon. It was a particularly bad day to run a long distance race. The Air Pollution Index shot up on that day, with some of the 40,000 participants complaining that the foul air was already present in the early morning before the race began. Over 4,800 people required medical attention (not all due to the bad air), and one runner, an asthmatic, died. [35] The ability to see Victoria Harbour from The Peak, one of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist attractions, is now possible only about every other day.  With so many buildings and roads popping up on both sides of the Harbour, largely as a result of reclamation, it may be a matter of time before Hong Kong Island is joined to Kowloon and ends up like Coney Island -- an island in name only.

The most memorable skylines are those that are adjacent to bodies of water, which make them stand out. There is a certain ambience to any waterfront that attracts people, investment, and ultimately high-priced real estate. Hong Kong has what is arguably the world’s grandest skyline. “Manhattan with Mountains” was how one government official put it. (That is, if you can see it.) Since Hong Kong’s founding in 1841, Victoria Harbour has shrunk to about half its original size. However, until the last decade, the contraction of the Harbour was not a big issue, but rather a sign of progress for a territory that was 75 percent mountain and needed flat land on which to build one of the world’s most dynamic cities.

So, in (dis)honor of the possibilities to come, here is a tongue-in-cheek, potential future timeline for Hong Kong:

2008: Victoria Harbour is unofficially rechristened Victoria Strait due to excessive reclamation.  Its waters become more turbulent, and accidents in the Harbour experience a dramatic jump because more ships are squeezed into less space.

The cover of LP’s 2010
 Hong Kong & Macau Guide

2010: more development results in Victoria Strait becoming Victoria Canal.  Ships are banned from navigating its narrow waters. The venerable Star Ferry has begun to use its vestigial boats as bridges, since the length of one boat equals the width of the canal.  Pedestrians crossing between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon pay a toll to walk across a boat to the other side, which is cheaper than crossing by tunnel. The canal no longer hosts any fireworks displays on major holidays because they are no longer visible in the haze.  Lonely Planet slights Hong Kong again with its latest guide, the cover of which shows a still mobile Star Ferry (the picture was taken the previous year) with an almost completely smog-obscured Hong Kong skyline as its backdrop.

: still more reclamation and development shrinks Victoria Canal into Victoria Nullah. Now that the Star Ferry is no longer needed even as a bridge, the company goes out of business and its last boat is moved to a spot outside the Hong Kong History Museum, where it is placed in a bed of concrete that will serve as its final resting place. The Nullah stimulates an interest in the sport of long jumping. Top local athletes compete to see who could make the farthest jump across it (as long as they could see the other side), while trying not to land in its super toxic waters. The longest jumper represents Hong Kong in the London Olympics.

2014: Victoria Nullah is completely filled in after a visiting Mainland dignitary’s limo plunged into its waters when its driver could not see through the haze. (Later, it was discovered that this official had accepted bribes from Hong Kong industrialists in exchange for not punishing them for their failure to reduce pollution from their factories in China.)  Hong Kong’s famous skyline disappears amid a blanket of concrete and smog, which is just as well because it is no longer visible from The Peak or Kowloon. The city begins to resemble the planet Bespin (below Cloud City, that is), and literally chokes in the noxious air created by the sea of motor vehicles that clogs its streets every day. Lonely Planet delays publishing a new Hong Kong guide until Hong Kong cleans up its act, which spares the city from yet another humiliating Kodak un-moment.

2015: Visibility is so poor that most vehicles down to the level of bicycle have to resort to mini-radar, for which Hong Kong has become the largest municipal market, to navigate (just another electronic device for its gadget-hungry people). Respiratory diseases are now the number one killer in Hong Kong, and gas masks and portable oxygen tanks are as common as cell phones. There is a silver lining to the disappearance of the Harbour, however: the tunnels, buses, and trains could no longer justify charging cross-Harbour fees, so fares are reduced lest commuters riot. But this is canceled out by the explosion in healthcare costs. Instead of issuing a new guide for Hong Kong, Lonely Planet advises potential visitors to avoid the city, citing its horrendous air quality.

2020: the environment takes revenge, as global warming becomes uncontrollable. The glaciers melt rapidly and sea levels rise several meters. In Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour is reborn, while the roads and buildings that occupied its old locale are partly or totally submerged. The city now resembles Planet Kamino. Worse, many of Hong Kong’s mountains, which are so sorely needed now, had long ago been turned into landfill, while inhabitants of the surviving mountains are all but cut off from civilization, with only the wealthier ones able to afford evacuation by helicopter. For the first time in the history of Hong Kong’s real estate industry, waterfront property is not worth a damn. Boats become homes for many again, and the last Star Ferry boat is freed from its concrete bed and pressed back into service. (Still, Hong Kong comes out better than New York, Shanghai, and Singapore, all of which are mostly at sea level.)

However future history plays out, it would be ironic, not to mention tragic, for Hong Kong to lose any more of its Harbour -- one of the best, if not the best, deep water Harbours in the world. It is its Harbour, not its people, that is its most important resource, because without the Harbour, the people, ships, and money would not have come. Yet, for too long, people have taken its Harbour for granted. In English, Hong Kong means “fragrant Harbour,” but Victoria Harbour has been anything but fragrant in recent decades. Raw or semi-treated sewage has long been discharged into its waters, reaching 450,000 cubic meters (almost 16 million cubic feet) per day in 2005. [36] If that sounds insalubrious, then consider the alternative: where will these effluents go if the Harbour disappears?

But the government, which was supposed to safeguard Victoria Harbour, has shirked its own duties by approving even more reclamation projects, including the construction of more highways to accommodate cars, even though it has been demonstrated that more roads result in more traffic jams and air pollution. [37] This latest round of filling in the Harbour has aroused even the reservations of the business community, a sector whose views are influential in Hong Kong. Some of Hong Kong’s business groups have sounded remarkably green on the air pollution/reclamation issue. [38] When you breathe the same air and have the same, shrinking, smoggy view of the Harbour as everyone else, it is your problem too.


Smog may have an unforeseen effect on the world’s male population. Apparently, it has affected their manhood -- literally! A recent study in the U.S. suggested that ozone, which is formed by the interaction of sunlight and smog, lowers men’s sperm counts. [39] That is not good news for men in China and Hong Kong, who breathe some of the most polluted air in the world. Citizens of both places already make less love than the global average, according to a 2005 survey sponsored by a condom manufacturer. [40] Perhaps that is why some of them buy big vehicles -- to make up for their own carnal frustrations.

But not so much in Hong Kong. Unlike China and the U.S., private car ownership in Hong Kong has been and remains low, with only seven percent of the population owning cars. [41] One reason for this is because gas prices in Hong Kong are among the highest in the world, costing the equivalent of between $6-$7 per gallon the last time I checked (late June 2006). Most of Hong Kong’s people rely on public transportation (buses, rail, ferries, and even taxis) to get around, and its public transportation system is very good -- maybe too good.

Of the three land-based options, buses are the cheapest, but they are also the dirtiest. (To their credit, most standard size buses are double deckers with a maximum capacity of over 100 passengers each.) The three biggest bus lines in the city have a combined fleet of some 5,500 vehicles [42], and that does not include the tens of thousands of minibuses, private buses, and other commercial vehicles that also share and pollute Hong Kong’s air. Most of these run on diesel, which is cheaper than gas, and cheaper still for the bus companies because they receive a specially low price for it. [43] That is important for engines that are found in only 30 percent of Hong Kong’s vehicles, but logged 70 percent of all distances driven in 2002. [44]

Diesel engines are more fuel efficient than gas engines, but they tend to pollute more.  Newer diesel engines, which some buses are being equipped with, are cleaner, but their emissions depend on their maintenance and the quality of the fuel that goes into them. (In early 2006, one of the big three bus lines was awarded a ten-year extension of its franchise despite having the most polluting fleet of them all. [45]) Many Hong Kong vehicles are not well-serviced (most drivers do not even know how to pump gas because it is done for them), and diesel bought in China (usually by commercial vehicles that cross the border), where environmental standards are lower, is dirtier than diesel from Hong Kong. Moreover, Hong Kong’s emissions standards have not been tightened, thereby allowing older, dirtier vehicles to remain on the road. [46]

Hong Kong’s two largest power plants burn coal, a resource that is plentiful and cheap.  Their emissions are responsible for one-third of the city’s air pollution. One-third of the electricity generated goes towards operating air conditioners [47], which are in use at least eight months out of the year. Most businesses and homes have air conditioning, and many homes, which are tiny by American standards, have more than one unit. (A home I used to live in, all 450 sq. ft. of it, had three units, while my last home in New York, which was twice as big, had none because its old wiring could not support an air conditioner.) Most users set their thermostats below the government recommended 25.5°C (78°F), which they believe is too high, as room temperature is 20°C (68°F) and the heat given off by the air conditioner of one’s neighbor compels one to blast one’s own to compensate. Then again, some people blast them so hard that they end up putting on more clothes. Most Hong Kong buildings are poorly insulated, so air conditioners (and heaters in the winter, since it does get chilly) end up using more electricity than they should. Such little things multiplied hundreds of thousands of times contribute greatly to the foulness of Hong Kong’s air.





How the pollution flows. The Pearl River Delta is in the middle (double arrows pointing down); Hong Kong is on the right. (From Clear the Air.)

Much of the pollution created in Hong Kong is blown up to Guangdong, where it mixes with pollutants generated there and is blown down the Pearl River Delta back to Hong Kong. [48] So when some hold China responsible for most of Hong Kong’s air pollution, there is some truth to this, but that ignores the real perpetrator of much of the pollution: the originator. What goes around comes around. Then there is the pollution that never leaves mainly because it is trapped between buildings, which act as artificial canyons (as mentioned earlier). That means Hong Kong’s main urban areas, not surprisingly, have some of the worst air quality in the world. But what is surprising to those who have not studied Hong Kong’s air pollution is that its western edges, which are considerably less urbanized, also suffer severe air pollution because they are located at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta.  (The airport is also located here.)

“Sorry, I cost extra!”

While few of its people own cars, this does not indicate the absence of a car culture in Hong Kong.  It does, after all, have the highest per capita ownership of Mercedes Benzes and Rolls Royces in the world.  Benzes are so common that some public housing estate residents drive them. [49] Even less prestigious brand cars are babied (in the visible parts at least) by their owners, so unlike New York, there are no jalopies or cars in need of a bath on Hong Kong’s streets.  Buying and maintaining a car in Hong Kong is a lot more expensive than in the U.S., but some people manage to do it.  Select residents of certain luxury developments go as far as paying at least HK$1 million (over US$128,000) for a plain concrete parking space on their premises, which does not include deflector shields or MagnaGuards, while a recent license plate auction saw one winner bid HK$1.5 million (over US$192,000) for a plate with a lucky number. [50] Many homes do not even cost that much, which shows how obsessed with their cars some Hong Kong people can be.

Delay No More

There is a saying: you enjoy something, you pay for it. That means you pay not only for its convenience, but also for its liabilities. In Hong Kong, the most dreaded liability for its car owners is the aforementioned traffic jam -- what everyone on the road adds to, but to which no one ever admits. When a multitude of vehicles moves at a snail’s pace along a stretch of road for an extended period of time, it is best not to be walking by breathing in their collective discharge. Hong Kong seems to host those annual gridlock parties in which certain sections of its road network turn into the world’s longest parking lots. The most recent incident happened in May 2005, when it took motorists four hours to negotiate the three miles (4.8 km) between two points in Kowloon that would have only taken ten minutes under optimal conditions.

“Delay no more!!!”
(Sort of.)

To put this sloth race into perspective, it takes about three and a half hours to fly from Hong Kong to Singapore -- a distance of some 1,600 miles (2,560 km). To be fair, conditions on that day were less than favorable because it had been raining for two straight days. But in times of adverse weather, one would be prudent to leave the car at home and opt for public transportation. (Buses were also caught in the mix, but in their defense, they carried a lot more passengers, some of whom might have driven.) Many drivers, however, did not get it, and ended up wearing out their thumbs with their honking and/or their throats with their loud swearing (shouting the usual vulgar Cantonese expletive about doing something to a certain part of the anatomy of the other person’s mother, which sounds somewhat similar to the title of this section).

The subway would have been the best public transportation option for a rainy day, as it usually runs underground. Hong Kong’s subway (called the MTR, or Mass Transit Railway) has been very good, even great, since it commenced service in 1979. (Anyone who has taken New York’s subway, especially during the 1980s, and the MTR can attest to the general superiority of the latter.) What is interesting is that the MTR’s parent company is essentially a real estate company whose subway is but one of its businesses, which is not unlike American railroad companies profiting from the land grants bestowed upon them during the 19th Century. An MTR extension tends to be a boon for property values and renewal efforts in the affected neighborhoods. (On the other hand, some communities in the U.S. have opposed the reach of public transportation because they believe it lowers property values and brings in “undesirables” from poorer areas, even if some of these “undesirables” work for them.)

It has always been more expensive to take a train than to take a bus because the former has to bear part of the cost of building the infrastructure (tracks, tunnels, elevated portions, stations, etc.) on which it operates, while the latter uses existing streets, which are already paid for. In spite of public subsidies, the MTR operates at a loss, while property is its parent company’s gold mine. [51] Yet, it has increased its share of riders in recent years [52], due partly to an expansion of its network, but also to the improving economy.

But unlike New York’s subway, the MTR has not offered discounted monthly tickets, nor has it arranged with the bus companies for free bus-train transfers. [53] These two schemes would have likely increased ridership on the MTR even more and eased the burden on commuters’ wallets, but the MTR has instead offered only modest concessions, so polluting buses and minibuses continue to be significant modes of public transportation for commuters, particularly for long journeys. The government wants rail to comprise from 40 percent to as much as one-half of commuters’ trips by 2016 (up from one-third in 1997) [54], but it has continued to place heavy emphasis on roads, including planning another highway under reclaimed land for cars. [55]

Another controversial MTR policy is its ban on bicycles from its trains since early 2004 after an arson attack, although a bicycle is not known for being a fire-starting ingredient, while it still allows packages that exceed its size limits to be brought on board.  (What if one of them contains explosives?)  This move has upset bicyclists, who have mostly been discouraged from the more level main urban areas, which are better suited to bicycles, because of government policies that favor cars, and would like more places to pedal for the sake of their health and the environment, as well as for recreation. [56]

Hence, as good as Hong Kong’s public transportation efforts have been, there remain enough petrol-chugging vehicles on its roads to star in future episodes of the world’s longest parking lots with a supporting cast of some of the world’s most short-tempered, sore-thumbed, and foul-mouthed drivers. The next installment could come as early as this summer, when Hong Kong’s weather is the lousiest for driving. Stay tuned.

I Can Drive 55

The last car I owned was a 1994 Ford Escort with automatic transmission. Until I sold it in 2001, I kept its window sticker in the glove compartment to see how well its fuel economy held up over the years. The sticker stated that the Escort had a fuel economy of 26 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway, which was solid, but not overly impressive for a small car, although they were well above the 24 mpg average for all vehicles nowadays. This mean is well above the 13 mpg average in 1973, before the OPEC embargo, but is actually a decline from 1987, when it topped 27 mpg. [57]

Real fuel economy depends on a variety of factors, but one of the biggest is how fast one drives. Everyone who drives knows that almost no one observes speed limits, especially on a highway. The maximum speed allowed is often treated as the minimum speed. I was one of the very few who did observe the speed limit, and was rewarded with fuel economies of 41 and 48 mpg for the two longest trips I made in the Escort. (It also helped that most of the miles I drove during these trips were on the highway in relatively warm weather, with properly inflated tires, limited use of the air conditioner, and rolled up windows.) It is possible to achieve near hybrid fuel economy in a conventional small car by following these simple tips, and it does not cramp your lifestyle. When the alternative is choosing between gas and food or medicine, as it is for some, every little drop saved helps. [58]

A few commentators have floated the idea of restoring the 55 mph (88 kmh) speed limit. First instituted in 1974 as a national security measure (which was also a reason for the tougher fuel economy standards), the law helped save about 2.5 billion gallons of fuel by a decade later, according to one estimate, and even combined with stricter fuel economy standards to slightly reduce oil consumption by 1990. [59] But then oil became cheap again, and the 55 mph limit was gradually repealed state by state until it was lifted entirely in 1995. Now that the price of oil is going through the roof once more, the idea of 55 has been revived. It will not be popular just as it was not popular the first time around, not when motorists routinely shatter 70 mph (112 kmh), which is now the most common speed limit on the non-urban stretches of the major highways. [60] But should the gas situation become more acute, more Americans may lend support to fuel-saving measures that are presently unthinkable.

SUV = Sucking Up to Venezuela (and Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, etc.) [61]

True, the H2 gets about 13 miles to the gallon, but I am not a wasteful American…If someone told me to get rid of my SUV, I would really question his sanity…if I don't have the freedom to decide what's good for me, then maybe we have the wrong country right now…The shape of it -- the bigness, the boxiness – does something to women…I don't own it as a fashion thing.

-- a Hummer owner [62]


“Driving a vehicle that wastes an incredible amount of gas while our troops die in oil wars is completely irresponsible and not my idea of patriotism.”

-- an Iraq War veteran on the Hummer [63]

Whether or not Ms. “Hummerhead” has decided if she bought her “beast” (her term for it) for its beauty, good luck to her on trying not to bust her budget to fill its thirsty gas tank. She is not alone in wanting the freedom to decide what is good for her. Multiply her by tens of millions of drivers, and one can see why Americans, with five percent of the world’s population, use a quarter of the world’s resources. Unfortunately for the appetites of its drivers, the U.S. cannot produce all the oil it uses, so it is dependent on other countries to make up the balance. Some of these suppliers have been overtly or covertly uncooperative with American foreign policy lately, and know they have a certain amount of leverage with the U.S. due to the addiction of its people for their most valuable commodity.

The big reason for the drop in average fuel economy is the popularity of the SUV. I once had a geology professor who advised against buying an SUV. I still remember that day the professor gave this advice. This was during the mid-1990s, at the dawn of the SUV craze. It was a cold, snowy day, which delayed many students in their school commute. A thought on the minds of many in the class was this: is an SUV more suitable for winter conditions than a car? The professor did not think so. He deemed SUVs overrated for the situations in which they tended to operate, and people who bought them wanted them mainly for the image and the false sense of security they conveyed. On this point, he was challenged by a student, but he did not budge. “Just get a decent car with front wheel drive, and you’ll be fine,” he answered. True enough, the news that evening showed that a disproportionate number of vehicles that skidded off the roads that day were SUVs.

In offering this opinion, the professor also revealed that he owned an SUV, but he needed it for his field research. He was one of the 15 percent of SUV owners who actually take their vehicles off-road, which was what an SUV was built for in the first place. When SUVs were confined to only a small group of owners -- folks who tended to utilize their vehicles’ all-wheel drive feature to fulfill tasks that could not be handled by other vehicles -- their impact on the environment and society was small. Later, when SUVs surged in popularity and car brands that previously had no business with SUVs started to slap their logos on their own models, some in the 15 percent group (like the professor) have viewed these shiny playthings with a mixture of amusement and disdain. When someone spends at least $50,000 for a set of wheels with leather interior and a kick-posterior entertainment center, he or she would likely not risk dirtying even its exterior by letting its tires taste something other than concrete for long (if at all).

"The only time those SUVs are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 AM," snickered an auto executive. [64] Such condescension by some industry insiders for their most lucrative customers (profit margins for SUVs are higher than those for cars) reveals the anxieties of the latter when they choose a former fringe vehicle whose full capabilities will usually go unused. The auto industry may have created the SUV hype, but even it could not have imagined how popular it would become. [65] Not that it minds. If some people must have one, the industry would be stupid not to take their money.

A bargain here, when other stations demand your first born.

But high gas prices have done to the SUV what environmentalists, auto critics, and horse excrement could not -- make its sales suffer. Sure, the biggest, most high-end models still sell well because their buyers can easily absorb the extra cost of owning them, while smaller SUVs will also sell because they use a little less gas. It is the mainstay, mid-sized models whose sales have gone down, and this has hurt those manufacturers that have depended heavily on them. Gas in the U.S. is still cheap by non-OPEC world standards, but many Americans now think it costs them a limb each time they fill up, and then some. When your livelihood revolves around the car, as it does for many in the U.S., you do not give a rat’s derrière how much more drivers in other countries are paying for their fuel.  But after so many years of reaping the rewards from driving their land dreadnoughts, SUV owners are now facing up to the consequences of their decisions. I count family members and friends among them, all of whom are good, ordinary people who are finding today’s gas prices to be not so good and ordinary. They hang on to their SUVs, hoping that gas prices will come back down, even if they know better.

Change from Within…

After it made an eye-popping $36 billion profit in 2005, ExxonMobil has been accused of taking advantage of “hapless motorists.” [66] But most motorists are hardly hapless, helpless, or hopeless. Those who complain about high fuel costs while they continue to drive gas guzzlers understand that they have to pay for something they enjoy, and are willing to accept this trade-off. Those who did not have downgraded to smaller, more fuel economic vehicles already. Few in either situation could be regarded as incapable of altering their relationships with their beloved rides; they have simply adapted to the new reality. Americans can be quite adaptable, and as long as gas prices increase slowly instead of in spurts, most folks can absorb them.

What most car owners in the U.S. face today is an inconvenience, not a crisis. As bad as price gouging looks, it is not rationing, which has not been imposed or even suggested with a war in progress. (Far from it; the message is for people to keep on consuming so they will forget what is going on overseas.) Rationing is what the older generation that has lived through World War II remembers, and even then, the average American lived better than the average person anywhere else. Rationing is never popular because it forces people to reduce their consumption of certain commodities, even if they have more than they need. It projects an image of weakness, and no wealthy country wants to give its people that impression.

But there have always been people who know how to live below their means without lowering the quality of their lives, and they are not necessarily rich. Many of them own cars, but they can shrug off, perhaps even welcome, high gas prices because they know that errands, most of which occur close to home, account for one-third of the gas Americans burn in their cars, so they run their errands by walking or biking instead of driving. A quarter of all trips in the U.S. are under a mile (1.6 km), and half of all trips are less than three miles (4.8 km). [67] High gas prices are an added incentive to shun the car more often, and these thrifty individuals can oblige. If they live near a reliable source of public transportation, they take advantage of it for their work or school commutes, while leaving the car for weekends. If they do not, they find something else to cut back on without depriving themselves. They need not wait for a contingency to start adapting because they already did so when times were better. They could limit their trips to the pump and make it harder for any oil company to be the first to triple-digit billions in profits.

In a nutshell, these are the kind of people who tend to own their cars rather than let their cars own them. By exercising their right not to drive, they are making as powerful a statement as exercising the opposite right, if not more. The oil companies are betting that Americans must always have their gas no matter what, and they are winning that bet, just as they had won it throughout the 20th Century. As long as people keep wanting it, they can keep increasing the price for it. It is easy to blame this on the sheer greed of Big Oil, which is true to some extent, but just as the auto industry cannot say no to people who want SUVs, the oil industry is trying to find out how much more it could charge for gas before enough people say “Enough!”

Driving less can be so simple to follow, but so hard for many to accept. There are some people who cannot give up their cars because they absolutely need them to make a living, and that is understandable. But with cars outnumbering registered drivers in the U.S., there are definitely people who could abstain from them even once in a while. Until more of them start to depend on their cars less for duties they could accomplish with cheaper, less polluting methods, they will never get off the oil treadmill and Big Oil will continue to rake in the obscene profits.

…or from Without

“It is just as hot in Beijing as it is in Washington, DC. You try to tell the people of Beijing that they can’t buy a car or an air conditioner because of the global climate change issue.”

-- a  Chinese energy researcher [68]

The U.S. can expect gas prices to remain high, and go even higher. Even if the oil industry were to suddenly experience an epiphany and give its customers a break, it will have more customers vying for its product. Many of them will come from China, which has 20 percent of the world’s population, a good percentage of whom are just as hungry to get behind the wheel as Americans. If all Chinese were to consume with American-sized appetites, they would theoretically be consuming 100 percent of the world’s resources (four times the population equals four times the consumption). That is not going to happen. No country wants to curb its resource consumption to accommodate the Chinese, especially not the U.S.

But per capita consumption in China will continue to increase. Just like its U.S. counterpart, the Chinese Government wants its people to keep on consuming so as to divert their attention away from some serious problems at home and abroad. Most of China’s people, though, are still poor, and they are the first ones to experience the effects of their more affluent compatriots’ growing appetites, notably for energy. The restriction on bicycles in some cities in favor of cars is one example, but another one is the controversial Three Gorges Dam, which has forced the relocation of between 1-2 million people -- one of the largest single peacetime displacements of humanity in history. Those evicted are often inadequately compensated, and many head to the eastern part of China, which is already teeming with people who are straining its resources and infrastructure, to try to eke out a living. Some find no better opportunities there, and have no choice but to turn to illegal means to survive.

One reason for building the dam was to stabilize China’s use of coal, the burning of which was making the air over its cities the dirtiest in the world. [69] Now, with the dam almost operational, coal use has not abated because demand for electricity is so high that it is outstripping the rate at which the coal for generating it could be supplied. Coal-fired plants have been supplemented by oil-fired ones, and China has to import much of its oil. Even these are inadequate, as China plans to increase its investment in nuclear power regardless of the risks it entails. [70]

For the more well-off Chinese, it is consume like there is no tomorrow. After decades of being deprived of material goods, they believe they have just as much right to indulge as anyone else, and it is hard to argue against this stance. It is China that has provided most of the cheap labor to produce most of the wares that people in wealthier countries use. It is China that has served as a dumping ground for a good portion of the world’s refuse. It is China that has welcomed certain products and industries that were banned or discouraged by their original host countries after they tightened their environmental laws. The Chinese know what they have been giving, and they demand something back. Even though only ten percent of all Chinese can afford to live the good life right now, that equals about 130 million people, which is almost half the population of the U.S. A shift in consumption patterns of only a few percentage points for a country with so many people reverberates around the world.

One dollar a gallon for gas is in the past, and we will likely never see such a price again in the U.S. Right now, $2 a gallon is a steal, and this price is all but gone.  In time, even $3 a gallon will be a bargain, as it is in select markets right now. Fossil fuels have underwritten the world’s economy for the past century, but they are not renewable. In the absence of major new finds, the world’s current supply of coal, natural gas, and (above all) oil will only shrink. That China (and now India) has only begun to satisfy its crave for these resources most likely bumps up the day of their depletion.

China is probably the biggest catalyst in the oil pricing game today and will be for some time to come; there is nothing the oil industry can or wants to do about this. China has ostensibly committed to conserving energy in recent years, and in a few cases has actually carried it out. It is trying its hand at wind and solar power, both of which it has plenty, and it has announced new fuel economy standards that are (at least on paper) stricter than those in the U.S. [71] But these successes have been more than canceled out by the voracious growth in its use of fossil fuels. After having reduced its greenhouse gas emissions (particularly carbon dioxide) from the mid-1990s to 2000, China reversed itself and emitted half the world’s increase in them in 2003, and tacked on another 15 percent increase the next year. [72] Unless China makes radical changes to its energy policy and carries them out in earnest, its demand for oil will continue to intensify, and everyone else will either have to make room, find alternative sources of energy, or fight.

The U.S. has little leverage to criticize China. Its companies have helped spread the ethos of conspicuous consumption to the Mainland, and many American retirement accounts invest in companies that do business with China, even if some of their holders have been adversely affected by the emergence of China as an economic force.  China also finances an enormous amount of American debt. [73] In short, the well being of many Americans depends on the well being of China -- probably more so than the other way around.  That is the price Americans have to pay when they stopped being economically self-sufficient, starting with their energy.  While the U.S. scatters its military across more than 130 countries and territories to help keep the supply lines open and struggles to hold the bulls by their horns as it tries to pacify Afghanistan and Iraq, China has been busy securing oil deals with various countries in relative peace. [74] In 2005, it became bold enough to try for a piece of the U.S. oil industry when one of its predominantly state-owned oil companies, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), made a bid for its American counterpart Unocal, which was higher than an earlier bid made by another American oil company, Chevron.  This alarmed U.S. lawmakers, who bitterly opposed it on the grounds of national security, and it was finally dropped. [75]  But the moral of this near takeover -- that China is now an economic force to be reckoned with -- lingers.


In spite of China’s spiraling crave for fuel, its per capita energy use is still only about 12 percent of the U.S. figure [76], so critics from the West have pulled their punches when criticizing its environmental record. Yet I fear for China. Its economic growth is unsustainable, and oil is its Achilles heel. China does not hold all the cards in its quest for more oil. It seeks oil from the same places as the U.S. -- some of which may not always be so friendly, depending on the circumstances. China has its own brushes with the more violent elements of Islam, including battling a separatist movement on its western edges. The more China expands its global reach for energy, the greater its chances of stepping on toes. Some of the aggrieved owners of those toes may decide to retaliate by targeting places with large Chinese populations for terrorist acts -- like Beijing (the capital), Shanghai (China’s largest city), and Hong Kong (China’s wealthiest city). The way a terrorist may see it, there are a lot more potential Chinese targets than there are American targets.

As China continues to pollute itself, it will have to worry about the effects of environmental degradation on all its people, but mostly on its Han majority, who are mostly concentrated in the more crowded and dirtier eastern part of the country. Already they have suffered displacement in favor of private development or dubious public works projects, layoffs from state-owned enterprises, and even poor benefits for soldiers who have been discharged from the army. As they see the corruption and injustices mount and the gap between themselves and the minority Haves widen, these Have Nots have become ever more volatile, and they have expressed their outrage through civil disturbances. [77] Ecological ruin and excess development have historically contributed to the downfall of some dynasties, and the Communist Party is no less vulnerable to such an outcome. When you privatize the gains for a few and socialize the pains for the many (and probably nothing is shared more by the masses than the effects of pollution), then people can only tolerate this for so long. In a country that does not allow its citizens a right to channel their grievances through voting, peaceful assembly, or free speech, they can either keep quiet or they can become disruptive or even violent. There is no middle ground.

About the fight option mentioned earlier: the worst case scenario would probably be the U.S. and China coming to blows to control the world’s remaining supplies of fossil fuel. Both sides have nuclear weapons, and if they are used, this would be one conflict that no one can really “win”. Even if a Chinese-American war were to remain conventional, for what purpose would it have been waged -- so that some half a billion people could continue to drive a little farther, eat more exotic foods, kick up their air conditioners a notch, and dwell in more cavernous digs at the expense of most of the other six billion-plus inhabitants in the world? A war itself would necessitate the expenditure of even greater quantities of fossil fuel by both sides just to secure the remainder, much of which will be hard to extract. Is it worth escalating the situation when a more sensible alternative is for both sides to back down by sharing and stretching their supplies out through smarter use?

Its excellent public transportation system notwithstanding, Hong Kong is also vulnerable to any disruptions to its energy use habit.  It is officially a part of China, and depends largely on China for its food.  But wherever its food comes from, it will have to be imported by a mode of transportation that likely runs on oil.  Its skyscrapers (which Hong Kong has more of than any other city in the world) rely heavily on coal for electricity generation and natural gas for cooking and water heating. Its world famous skyline depends on a steady stream of electricity to produce its dazzling nighttime displays.  In case of a disruption, even public transport will suffer, as buses and ferries run on oil, while trains are powered by electricity.  For now, coal is easier to obtain, since China still has ample deposits of it, but at what price?  Hong Kong’s coal power plants are slowly (perhaps too slowly) cleaning up their act [78], but their progress has been partially offset by an increased use of machinery that runs on electricity (not unlike the increased use of cars in the U.S. offsetting its deindustrialization).  If you trade in your Ford Explorer for a Toyota Prius and end up driving the Prius twice as far, your net energy efficiency and benefit to the environment is almost zero, and it is no different when you buy energy efficient appliances and end up using them incessantly. True energy savings result when people use less of it, not more.  That is something we should all remember. [79]

Many Hong Kongers are materialistic, but their tiny homes compel them to buy and dispose of stuff much too quickly and easily.  Such a throwaway mentality produces huge amounts of trash, and Hong Kong is running out of landfill space to receive it.  (Some of it is dumped in China, although some of this is reused.)  The amount of resources (including fossil fuels) needed to manufacture newer versions of the things that Hong Kong people tend to discard cannot be disregarded. Hong Kong may be small, but its ecological impact is far from negligible.  Its wanton consumption habits are evident when not a few of its residents today (i.e., my parents’ generation and earlier) can still remember the days when one could not simply plug in something, flick on the switch, and expect the power to come automatically.  For many, there was no switch or socket, and things that would be tossed out today with little heed would have been patched up and reused back then.

Rail has seen its ups and downs over the decades. In the 19th Century, it was a high-tech bully.  By the late 20th Century, as Europe and parts of Asia developed vibrant rail systems, the formerly world class U.S. rail network became the sick relation in the American transportation family, despite the fact that rail is a versatile mode of transportation because it can run on several kinds of fuel, and is more efficient in hauling cargo and passengers than cars, buses, trucks, or aircraft. A rail network is harder to build than a highway network, but may be cheaper to maintain. Trains do generate pollution, but the amount they produce is small compared to the amount emitted by cars or trucks, especially when the amount of passengers or cargo they can carry is taken into account. [80] Commuters who are sick of traffic jams are becoming increasingly receptive to rail, whether it is in the form of intercity trains, light rail, or the subway. Even the slow trams (streetcars) have retained a sizable passenger base in places like Hong Kong because they are cheap and have that “classic” feel to them. Some cities in the U.S. that had streetcars before sacrificing them for the car have reintroduced them in recent years, while much-maligned Amtrak, which has been malnourished since its introduction in 1970, has posted record levels of ridership in the last few years. In recent years, it had been turned around and received bipartisan support from Congress, including some much-needed additional funding, before its competent CEO was fired in late 2005. [81]

China, which has had a respectable rail network since the days of Mao, has undoubtedly been crazy about cars, but it has extended a bigger lifeline to rail than the U.S. Hundreds of millions of Chinese still depend on rail to get around, and industry still relies heavily on it to move its freight. But investment in its roads, notably by foreign investors, has outstripped rail investment by a five to one ratio, although this figure is more favorable to rail than the funding disparity between roads and rail in the U.S. Nonetheless, China’s rail network is aging and being taxed to its limit.  Rail is one state-owned institution that has largely escaped the market-based upheavals of China’s economy over the past 25-30 years. The government’s Ministry of Railways has been slow to embrace foreign investment, not least because it regards rail as more a public service and strategic need than a commercial venture. Rail has always been a capital-intensive enterprise that only offers returns, if any, in the long run, so investors looking to make a quick killing in the market usually do not go for it. Governments everywhere have always provided the bulk of the funding for rail, and in a number of countries it is a symbol of national pride. The Chinese Government has cautiously welcomed foreign investment for rail, but it clearly intends to retain control of it, even if it had agreed, under WTO requirements, to liberalize it by 2007. [82]

Looking Forward by Looking Back?

Supporting the war effort
with muscle power, 1942 (©UPI)

For all its efficiency, rail depends on fossil fuels for its production and operation. It can help stretch out these resources, but it cannot reverse their depletion. So it should be supplemented by something further down the transport chain. The bicycle, perhaps? The U.S. and China have performed a minor switcheroo in their choice of transportation in recent decades, with the former rediscovering the bicycle [83] and the latter abandoning it for the car. The exchange is not even because the Chinese have taken to the car faster than Americans have taken to the bicycle. While their efforts are still only a drop in the U.S. transportation bucket, some American cities are discovering the benefits of giving more latitude to bicycles, such as cleaner air, better health, and a greater sense of community. Whereas a few Americans each year have converted to bicycles, considerably more Chinese have been rudely awakened to the perils of a sedentary lifestyle. The former are learning to work out those parts of the body other than the ankles and wrists, while the latter are contracting the diseases of affluence, like obesity, which had been rare in China over the course of its extensive history.

Americans are all too familiar with letting certain parts of the body atrophy or inflate while overusing other parts for the wrong reasons. They once employed blood, sweat, and tears to get the work done too, but fossil fuels allowed them to become the most prolific users of machinery in the world.  If the era of cheap and easy energy ends, they will have the most adjusting to do, but adjust they will, even if they have to go through a bit of chaos to do it. The same goes for Hong Kongers and those Mainland Chinese who are living a First World lifestyle right now.  The machine-dependent would do their health a favor by honing the only machines with which they were born.

If the age of cheap fossil fuels is almost over, then China would have only caught the tail end of it. But its economic growth has been so breathtaking that many of its citizens believe that it will go on forever without realizing that it was made possible in part by cheap fossil fuels. Of all the Mainland Chinese I have encountered thus far, the general consensus among them almost to a man (or woman) goes something like this: the future is bright for China. A few have shown concern for China’s social and environmental problems, but do not think they could do anything about them. Others treat them as the price to pay for progress.

These Mainlanders are not representative of the average Chinese. They hail from and/or live in the most prosperous parts of China. Many of them are younger people who have known little or no hardship in their country, having been either very little or very non-existent when their elders faced a kind of deprivation they only hear about through narratives. They are among the lucky minority in their country, where over a billion of their fellow Chinese still lead a tough existence. I have yet to visit any of the poorer inland provinces of China, but I has already seen glimpses of this harsh life in the richer coastal provinces, where not everyone shares equally in the spoils.

One memorable example came in 2001 when I visited my mother’s birthplace in Shaoguan, a medium-sized city in Northern Guangdong about 180 miles (288 km) from Hong Kong. By Guangdong standards, Shaoguan is not very affluent, although it is a lot better off than most places in China located even farther inland.  I was at one of Shaoguan’s tourist sites, where I spotted some construction going on near the entrance. I thought I was going to see workers donning proper construction gear (hard hats, dungarees, and work boots) operating heavy machinery. I saw none of these things.

All the workers wore grungier copies of regular civilian clothes that lacked protection. There were men as well as women. Most of them were small and did not look very hefty, with a few looking past their prime and one even missing a hand. But all of them carried a large pole, at the ends of which were balanced two baskets, each holding no fewer than 15 bricks, making them look like human Libras. A typical brick weighs at least 3 lbs. (1.4 kg), so 30 bricks come to at least 90 lbs. (42 kg). Add the pole and two baskets, and each worker definitely carried in the region of 100 lbs. (about 45.5 kg). A handful of them appeared lighter than their loads, and 100 lbs. was a conservative estimate. Then they had to lug their baggage up several flights of stairs that totaled at least 100 steps. I did not stick around to see how many trips they made back and forth, but one trip up those stairs already required a Herculean effort. All the workers (including the guy missing a hand) performed their jobs quietly, stoically, and methodically. It was an amazing -- and humbling -- spectacle. While some in the U.S. think they are giving up an appendage, even a metaphorical one, for gas, some on the other side of the world have to toil without a full set of limbs just to survive.

At the start of the 21st Century, the foundation of China’s new economy is still formed by that resource that has served it so well (and so anonymously) for millennia: the Chinese ant laborer. Sure, China now has heavy machinery available for its construction projects, but that tends to be confined to large scale projects and/or in the big cities. Most of the intensive labor in the country is still performed by human muscle power, and its historical credentials are impressive. It was Chinese ant labor that built the largest masonry structure in the world -- the Great Wall of China. It was Chinese ant labor that built half of the Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S. It was Chinese ant labor that built the runways in China for the first B-29 bombers to take off to bomb Japan during World War II. Westerners cannot imagine what ant labor can do, and neither can some Chinese who have had a Western upbringing.

These manual laborers will always have it tough, but if the current energy arrangement collapses (and it could be a matter of when rather than if), then they may be the ones who will come out of it better than those of us who depend so much on fossil fuels and machinery in our daily lives. One will not miss what one never had in the first place. For the rest of us, it is adapt or be left behind. For the average Mainlander, this will not be too hard; for the newly affluent Mainlander, this will take some readjusting; for the average Hong Konger, it will be harder still; and for the average American, it will be the hardest of all.  There is a Chinese proverb -- -- which, if translated literally, means: “If the horse dies, then get off and walk.” (In other words: adapt.) When your usual way of getting around gives out, then you should move on by another means, even if that involves using your own two feet.  No sense in beating a dead horse.

That brings us back to the subject at the beginning of this article. If the horseless carriage’s time is endangered, then the iron horse may be able to pick up some of the slack. If the iron horse can no longer be supported, then people may have to rely on its zoological namesake again (along with bicycles). A horse has considerable muscle power (or internal combustion engines would not be measured in horsepower), it can renew itself as long as it is fed properly, it could become a common presence in our lives once again, and in the future, its dung may be deemed too valuable to be rolled over by a set of tires.

Chohong Choi has lived in Hong Kong and New York, and can be reached at: a9591321@graduate.hku.hk.


Other Articles by Chohong Choi


* Hong Kong’s “Free Market”: Someone Pays
* Revenge of the Shift Worker



1) See the NYPD’s mounted unit page for a brief description.


2) Nedra Pickler, “Bush Eases Environmental Rules on Gasoline,” AP, April 25, 2006.


3)Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.162-163.


4) Brian Halweil, “Food Security Starts at Home,” San Francisco Chronicle (rpt. Commondreams.org), December 23, 2004.


5) Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took over America, and How We Can Take it Back (New York: Crown Publishers, 1997), p.213, 241.


6) David Rossie, e-mail to author, April 8, 2006.  Rossie has an article lampooning the contentious relationship between Exxon and Venezuela, which owns Citgo: “Goal No.1: Make the World Safe for Oil Companies,” Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin (rpt. Commondreams.org), April 5, 2006.


7) Juan Gonzalez pointed out right after Hurricane Katrina the practice of zone pricing in The Bronx, NY, which may exist elsewhere too.  See “Shell Game at Gas Stations Pays Big,” New York Daily News (rpt. Commondreams.org), September 8, 2005.


8) Floyd J. McKay, “Congress Takes Wrong Turn Down the Road to Ruin,” Seattle Times (rpt. Commondreams.org), April 27, 2005.


9) Ronald H. Bailey, The Home Front: USA (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978), p.158;  (2) McKay.


10) Abid Aslam, “Planet Faces Nightmare Forecasts as Chinese Consumption Grows and Grows,” Oneworld.net (rpt. Commondreams.org), March 10, 2005.


11) Lisa Mastny, “Cars,” in Good Stuff? A Behind-the-Scenes Guide to the Things We Buy, World Watch Institute, March 2004.


12) Mark O’Neill, “Love of Private Cars Blind to Urgent Need for Public Transport,” SCMP, August 26, 2002, p.3.


13) Michelle Krebs, “Everybody Stand Back: China Takes to the Road,” Caranddriver.com, October 2004; Bill Savadove, “In a Jam,” SCMP, September 9, 2003, p.A13; “Rising Accident Toll Forces Shanghai Learner Drivers to Hit the Road,” SCMP, October 6, 2004, p.A4; Russell Leigh Moses, letter to the editor, SCMP, December 30, 2005, p.A14.


14) Vivien Cui, “Taking a Hard Turn: Driving Tests Toughened Up on the Mainland,” SCMP, May 3, 2006, p.A6; www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/; Krebs.


15) O’Neill.


16) O’Neill.


17) From Wikipedia.


18) Yingling Liu, “Bus Rapid Transit: A Step toward Fairness in China's Urban Transportation,” World Watch Institute, March 9, 2006; Peter Goff, “866 Days to Go,” SCMP, March 26, 2006, p.C8.


19) Tim Luard, “Shanghai Ends Reign of the Bicycle,” BBC News Online, December 9, 2003; Isabel Hilton, “China’s Leap Backward,” The Guardian, December 17, 2003.


20) Since most bicycles that transport heavy goods have three wheels for better stability, they are technically tricycles.  Some bicycles have detachable extensions, as shown in one of the pictures.  For convenience purposes, they are all referred to as bicycles.


21) From www.goingtochina.com/bikepics/china-3-7a.jpg.


22) From "Bicycles in China," slideshow, p.41.


23) From "Bicycles in China," p.39.


24) From Bike China Adventures.


25) From www.thirdwave-websites.com/bike/recycle.jpg.


26) From www.gotouring.com/howdy/book1/pages/129-China-meat-cycles.htm.


27) From www.catanbox.com/Generiek/China2/08_bike.JPG.


28) Liu, “Shrinking Arable Lands Jeopardizing China's Food Security,” World Watch Institute, April 18, 2006.


29) Jamil Anderlini, “Smarter Farming Eases Pain of Reforms,” SCMP, December 18, 2005, p.B6; Greg Barns, “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff,” SCMP, February 28, 2006, p.A15; Liu, “Food Security”.


30) Jim Motavalli, “The Trouble with Meat,” Emagazine.com, May-June 1998.


31) “China's Claims on Earth's Resources Overtaking Those of the United States,” World Watch Institute, August 28, 1996; Aslam, “Nightmare”.


32) Tom Miller, “Experts Warn China’s Water Supply May Well Run Dry,” SCMP, November 22, 2005, p.A19.


33) Victoria Button, “Travel Bible Gives SAR Blanket Coverage; Cover Shot of City Lost in Haze a Misleading Image, Says Travel Chief,” SCMP, March 15, 2002, News, p.3; Alex Frew McMillan, “Hong Kong’s New Look Blues,” CNN.com, March 22, 2002.


34) Bryan Walsh, “Let There Be Light,” Time (Asia), May 8, 2006; Clear the Air.


35) Andy Cheng & Alvin Sallay, “Pollution Takes its Toll on Marathon Field,” SCMP, February 13, 2006, p.A1; Robin Kwong, “Sick in the City,” SCMP, February 22, 2006, p.A18.


36) Chaim Estulin, “How to Lose a Harbour,” Time (Asia), May 2, 2005, p.36.  Entire article is available at Friends of the Harbour.


37) Steinberg, p.214-215. This is a phenomenon called Braess’ Paradox after a mathematician of the same name; Estulin, p.37.


38) The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has been in favor of curbing air pollution as early as 2000; Walsh; Estulin, p.36.


39) “Ozone Spikes Hit Men Where it Hurts,” New Scientist SPACE, March 23, 2006.


40) Survey results are at Durex.com.


41) According to Clear the Air, a Hong Kong-based political action group dedicated to combating air pollution in the city and region.


42) As of November 2005, according to Clear the Air.


43) Customs in Hong Kong grants a refund of the duty paid by any of the franchised bus lines on light diesel.


44) From Clear the Air.


45) Annelise Connell, letter to the editor, SCMP, January 22, 2006, p.A10.  Ms. Connell is the chair of Clear the Air.


46) Fung Man Keung, “Cleaning Up the Fleet,” October 2005.  Article available at Clear the Air.


47) From Clear the Air.  Hong Kong also gets its electricity from a smaller gas-fired plant and a nuclear one in China.


48) From Clear the Air.


49) Jake van der Kamp, “Time for Public Housing Tenants to Pay Up,” SCMP, July 22, 2003, p.B18.


50) Chris Davis, “Better Ways to Blow a Million,” SCMP, December 11, 2005, p.A20; Donald Asprey, “Gold-plated Status Symbol Easy as 1,2,3,” SCMP, February 19, 2006, p.A5.


51) Van der Kamp, “MTR Succumbs to Greed and Becomes a Property Speculator,” SCMP, January 11, 2006, p.B18.


52) MTR Corporation Limited, Annual Report 2005, p.15.


53) Hong Kong has another rail facility, the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR), which mainly serves the city’s outer rim (i.e., the New Territories).  The KCR offers a discounted monthly pass for one of its lines, which also entitles holders to free transfers to bus and light rail services that it operates.  It also has real estate investments.  Recently, the government announced plans to merge the MTR and KCR.


54) Hong Kong Transport Bureau, Hong Kong Moving Ahead: A Transport Strategy for the Future (Hong Kong: the Bureau, 1999), p.11.  In 2004, rail comprised 34.6 percent of commuters’ public transport journeys, which was only slightly better than in 1997, but this figure had first declined to 31.4 percent during the recession years of 2001 and 2002 before climbing back up.  Commuters naturally opt for the cheaper buses during lean times, so rail’s ability to increase its share of commuters in the absence of greater discounts may depend largely on the economy.

55) Chloe Lai, “Transport Watchdog Backs Bypass Tunnel,” SCMP, May 18, 2006, p.A3.


56) Norma Connolly, “Uphill Battle,” SCMP, December 6, 2005, p.A18.


57) Jad Mouawad & Simon Romero, “Unmentioned Energy Fix: A 55 M.P.H. Speed Limit,” New York Times (rpt. Commondreams.org), May 1, 2005; Steinberg, p.275.


58) Brad Foss, “Rising Gas Prices Hit Poor Hardest,” AP, April 22, 2006.


59) Daniel Jack Chasan, “Americans Have Yet to Learn the Hard Political Lessons of the Arab Oil Embargo,” Seattle Times (rpt. Commondreams.org), March 22, 2004; Michael T. Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Petroleum Dependency (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), p.14; Klare, e-mail to author, June 13, 2006; Mouawad & Romero.

60) See Wikipedia.


61) These five countries are the largest foreign suppliers of oil to the U.S., according to the Department of Energy.


62) Karin Strickland & Dana White, “My Life, My Hummer,” New York Times, September 26, 2003, p.F9.  To her credit, Ms. “Hummerhead” used her bicycle for errands.  At the time of her article’s publication, she was about to learn how to drive her Hummer off-road.


63) From Medea Benjamin, “An Earth Day Call to Arnold Schwarzenegger: Go Hummer Free,” Commondreams.org, April 22, 2004.


64) Malcolm Gladwell, “Big and Bad,” The New Yorker, January 12, 2004, p.29.


65) Gladwell, p.28.


66) Deepa Babington, “Consumer, Environmental Fury Kicks off Exxon Meeting,” Reuters, May 31, 2006.


67) Kay, p.20, 296.


68) Steinberg, p.281.


69) Editorial, “Hooked on Petroleum,” New York Times (rpt. Commondreams.org), February 1, 2006; Keith Bradsher, “China's Boom Adds to Global Warming Problem,” New York Times (rpt. Commondreams.org), October 22, 2003.


70) Ted C. Fishman, China, Inc. (New York: Scribner, 2005), p.286.


71) “China, India Seen Setting Stage for Environment-Friendly World,” Agence France Presse (rpt. Commondreams.org), January 12, 2006; “China's Claims on Earth's Resources Overtaking Those of the United States”; Fishman, p.110-111; McKay.


72) Elizabeth Shogren, “Carbon Dioxide Emissions Jump 2.7% in the U.S.,” Los Angeles Times (rpt. Commondreams.org), June 30, 2001; Aslam, “Problems Aplenty in a World of Plenty -- Report,” Inter Press Service (rpt. Commondreams.org), May 15, 2005; Bradsher, “2 Big Appetites Take Seats at the Oil Table,” New York Times (rpt. EnergyBulletin.net), February 17, 2005.


73) Fishman, p.258, 263-265.


74) Klare, p.169-172.


75) Klare, “The Twilight Era of Petroleum,” TomDispatch.com, August 5, 2005.


76) Bill McKibben, “Welcome to the Climate Crisis,” Daily Camera (rpt. Commondreams.org), June 4, 2006.


77) Frank Ching, “China’s Powder Keg,” SCMP, August 24, 2005, p.A13; SCMP Staff, “Riot Police Move in to Free Mayor; Ex-PLA Men Protest in Shenzhen for Better Compensation,” SCMP, November 8, 2005, p.A6.


78) Legislative Council Panel on Environmental Affairs, “Reducing Emissions to Improve Regional Air Quality,” CB(1) 2304/04-05(07), September 29, 2005.


79) I am grateful for being reminded of alternatives to disposable tissues by a friend.  (Thank you, Yvonne!)


80) James Howard Kunstler, “The Long Emergency,” Rolling Stone, March 24, 2005; Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005), p.266-267.


81) Derrick Z. Jackson, “Derailing Amtrak,” Boston Globe, February 9, 2005; Neal Peirce, “Can Amtrak Survive Three More Years of Bush?” Seattle Times (rpt. Commondreams.org), December 12, 2005; Kay, p.267, 277, 308-310.


82) Shirish Nadkarni, “Archaic Railway Network Seeks Investors to Put it Back on Track,” SCMP, October 28, 2004, p.B12; Neil Gough, “New World Unit Signs Transport Deal; NWS to Join $19b Venture to Build and Run Rail Container Terminals in 18 Cities,” SCMP, September 27, 2005, p.B3; “Bullet Train Plan Ready to Roll with No Foreign Role Aboard,” SCMP, April 10, 2006, p.B2.


83) Stephen W. Sears, “Sorry No Gas,” American Heritage Magazine, Vol.30, Issue 6 (October/November 1979); Bailey, p.111. The ‘Victory’ bicycle in the picture (reprinted in Bailey, p.9) was promoted as a substitute for the car, but new ones were almost impossible to find.  Americans who resorted to bicycles during the war usually made do with the ones they bought before the war.