Finding a Parking Space in Beijing during the 1950s

Driving is a dangerous proposition in most Chinese cities. No one seems to follow the accepted rules of the road. Adhering to lane lines, using turn signals and stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks are more like suggestions—something to do if you are feeling particularly benevolent. Luckily, in Beijing and Shanghai, and increasingly in other areas of China, the number of the cars on the road makes it difficult to drive too fast. Traffic jams sometimes strangely double as safety mechanisms.

The other challenge of driving in China is finding a place to park. There is nothing quite like walking on a sidewalk and suddenly hearing the honk of a car horn urging you to get out of the way so a car can park. The search for parking spaces can also turn deadly. Last fall, Han Lei, a 39 year-old, killed a toddler, throwing her to the ground during a dispute over a parking space. Soon afterward, he was sentenced to death.

Though securing a parking space in Beijing was not always been violent, it has been an issue for a surprisingly long time.

After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party faced significant challenges of urban governance.  The main issue sounds simple but was actually quite thorny: How would a political force based in rural areas without much institutional knowledge of urban problems adjust to governing cities? These problems ran from social issue like prostitution, aesthetic ones like how to remake cities to be modern, socialist and still Chinese and practical ones like parking. There was probably no need to worry about parking in Yan’an.

As early as 1956, Beijing did not have enough parking spaces. The problem was twofold. Parking lots designed for that purpose were not meeting demand. Parking lots not designed for that purpose—sidewalks and open spaces where people could park cars—created spillover onto roads.The Beijing City Planning Commission (北京都市规划委员会)warned that the problem of parking would only get worse. In 1956 there were not enough parking spaces to accommodate the cities estimated 4,000 cars. As Beijing continued to grow, cars would overwhelm the number of parking spaces. In fact they already had.

Like many other documents from the 1950s, the survey of Beijing’s parking conditions reveals a budding statistical apparatus that provided information on all types of subjects. In this case, the report examined the surface area of parking lots, how many cars they were designed to hold, how many cars they normally accommodated and how many cars squeezed into them at peak times. The parking lot of the Beijing Hotel (北京饭店), for instance, was designed to hold 336 vehicles. It normally had 240 but at its busiest, 530 cars somehow managed to fit into the parking lot. The parking lot of the capital theatre (首都剧场) 81 vehicles but at its peak 130 cars squeezed in.

What made matters worse, the study found, was that many newly buildings did not take parking into consideration at all during the design or construction process. The results were messy and even dangerous. The newly constructed 百货大楼 had almost no places to park, forcing cars to stop on the street and in hutongs.

This method of constructing buildings without thinking about its influence on traffic patterns could not continue. First there needed to be more consideration of the distance between parking lots and ultimate destinations—they should not be too far away. Parking lots at certain focal points around the city (集中的集散点) need to be built in order to accommodate the largest number of vehicles. Finally, in the center of the city, underground parking lots should be investigated as a viable alternative for future construction while in other areas of the city multi-level parking garages were a promising possibility.

Two things stand out about this report. First is simply the fact that it exists and that as early as 1956 parking was a problem in Beijing. Next, and more interesting, is that it contains no real hints of an ideological agenda. Except for the parking lots around certain landmarks (The Soviet Union Exhibition Hall—苏联展览馆— is a bit of a give away), the report could be from nearly any country in any time period.

The dearth of ideology is not necessarily common when discussing urban governance in the 1950s. Even in the more mundane matters of transportation, there is distinctly socialist rhetoric about ferrying people and products across the city and country to enable production and help the economy grow. In more sensitive social issues—prostitution, for example—the rhetoric of socialism plays a stronger role still.

Long the purvey of political scientists, historians, thanks to a general climate of depoliticization as well as more access to archival collections and oral interviews, have just started to dive into the history of the 1950s.As Julia Strauss, former editor of The China Quarterly summed up “considering the PRC as history was not on the menu of choice in Western scholarship until a de facto depoliticization of the revolutionary era in the PRC was well under way.”[1] Interestingly enough, with the archives open, some issues, like parking, look more practical than political.
*Taken from Beijing Municipal Archives 001-006-02414


[1] Julia Strauss, “In Search of PRC History,” The China Quarterly, No. 188, The History of the PRC (1949-1976) (Dec., 2006): 857.


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