To understand true gridlock -- and a huge challenge for China's leaders as they try to move residents from the countryside into cities -- take a look at Wuhan.
This inland Chinese city of more than eight million people, famous for its hot weather and spicy noodles, has a traffic problem. A 2011 study by investment bank UBS shows cars chug through the city at an average of 12.7 miles an hour, slower than in New York and Tokyo.
Huang Liang, a dance teacher, recalled a scorching day this past summer when his car moved just over a mile in 3 1/2 hours as work on a new elevated highway brought street-level traffic to a standstill. Frustrated and out of gas, Mr. Huang abandoned his car curbside and hitched a ride home from a friend.
'Sitting in the car was like being in a sauna,' he said.
Traffic congestion is one of the biggest headaches for China's new leaders who are banking on an urbanization strategy to help drive economic growth.
In Wuhan, the government is in the midst of a subway-building frenzy -- constructing nine subway lines at the same time. The city is also busy building elevated highways and ring roads.
Yet congestion persists.
To try to fix the problem, about two years ago Wuhan became the first Chinese city to charge electronic tolls to reach its bustling downtown area, joining more-global cities such as London and Singapore.
But that move is also unpopular with some drivers who say the tolls are expensive and ineffective, and illustrates the thorny questions China faces as it tries to get more of its people to move to cities.
The system 'has done little to reduce traffic volume as there is a huge demand from commuters,' said Efan Kang, a financial-industry worker.
Experts say for toll systems to be effective, commuters need to have viable alternatives such as a robust public-transportation system, something that Wuhan is still in the process of building.
China's top leaders last month reaffirmed their intention to bring hundreds of millions of rural dwellers to cities to empower a Chinese consumer class that can help the economy ease its reliance on exports and big government spending.
But many people already living in cities fear China's massive rural population -- which makes up nearly half of the country's 1.3 billion total population -- will strain schools and hospitals and rev up competition for services.
Congestion is part of that equation. In a 2011 survey from International Business Machines Corp. on the emotional and economic toll of commuting, Beijing and the southern boomtown of Shenzhen were second only to Mexico City in terms of commuter misery.
To grapple with congestion and with pollution -- another drawback to growth -- Beijing said last month it would slash the quota of license plates it gives out to 150,000 a year from 240,000. Lanzhou, a city in China's northwestern Gansu province, said recently it would ban cars on alternate days depending on whether the license plate numbers end with an even or odd number until mid-January. According to the Wuhan government, more than 1.45 million motor vehicles were registered in the city as of July. In the past five years, the city has seen a more than 20% annual increase in automobile registrations.
Meanwhile, the length of roads increased only slightly, to about 8,000 miles at the end of 2011 compared with about 7,830 miles at the end of 2010.
City officials in Wuhan declined to be interviewed.
The Yangtze and Han rivers divide Wuhan into three main districts connected by a handful of bridges and a tunnel. Wuhan currently has only two metro lines.
'There are too many people. Public transportation is far from sufficient to satisfy demand,' said King Zhu, a real-estate industry professional.
'Congestion is everywhere. Subways and elevated highways are being built along the vital streets, narrowing the four-lane roads into two-lane ones, and riders of electric bikes always intrude into the motorways,' said Li Fuyuan, a 33-year-old Wuhan taxi driver.
To relieve its clogged thoroughfares, Wuhan introduced its electronic toll-collecting system in 2011. It uses a transponder people carry in their cars, enabling their accounts to be automatically charged. The system charges at least eight yuan (about $1.30) for every use of the bridges and the tunnel.
Fang Ke, lead transport specialist with the World Bank who has worked extensively on transportation projects in Wuhan, said some other approaches to easing congestion being rolled out there may only magnify the problem. Elevated highways, for example, could leave passengers stranded in the air, he said.
'Wuhan chose the wrong development model. . . . If they keep using this kind of approach they will have big problems.'