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Urban Chinese take to carpooling—against authorities' wishes

BEIJING—As oil prices rise, carpooling is taking off in China's biggest cities. But unlike in the West, authorities appear none too happy about it.

Web sites that serve as bulletin boards for those who want to carpool have popped up and are drawing huge amounts of interest.

"We have more than 20,000 members now, about 20 to 30 percent of whom have found satisfactory carpool partners," said Sun Yuou, who began a carpooling Web site in Shanghai about a year ago.

Carpooling is popular among urban white-collar workers weary of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on grindingly slow buses. Most don't know how to drive or can't afford cars.

"It used to take me one hour and 45 minutes from my home to work," said Zhang Pingping, a 23-year-old employee at an information technology company. "I had to take a bus, then transfer to a subway."

Zhang said she heard about carpooling from friends. She logged on to the Internet, posted a ride request and got a response within a day. The arrangement saves her half an hour each way.

She agreed to pay the driver, who uses his own car, 200 yuan a month, about $25, to help with gas. She said that was "pretty reasonable" for the time and energy she saved.

As crude oil prices soar worldwide, authorities in many developed countries are encouraging gas-saving methods such as carpooling. But Chinese authorities may be ready to crack down on it, because they see the drivers as engaging in illicit commercial transactions and the taxi industry views carpooling as a front for outlaw cab services.

State-run news media have carried numerous declarations of officials saying carpooling is illegal if the driver receives payment.

"It is an illegal business operation without a proper license. Those who conduct it could be punished," a Transportation Management Bureau official told the Jilin Daily newspaper. In Shenzhen, one transportation official, Sun Pulin, told a regional newspaper that anyone who offered carpooling services for payment could face impoundment of the car.

Cities such as Beijing are groaning under a traffic strain. The number of vehicles on Beijing's roads passed 2 million in 2004 and is expected to hit 3.5 million by the time the Summer Olympics are here in 2008. Urban traffic has slowed to a crawl, especially in bus lanes. Last year, city officials said bus speeds during rush hour had fallen as low as 3 mph.

China subsidizes gasoline prices, which are about $1.90 a gallon, but rising gas costs are pinching drivers. One Shanghai driver said the price hikes obligated him to look for someone to share costs with for his 37-mile commute.

"My salary hasn't increased much and I found it increasingly hard to keep my car," said the driver, who would give his name only as Mr. Lu. He said he charged riders about $1.25 for each ride, less than it would cost by taxi.

Then Lu clammed up.

"I have to be cautious about this," he said. "I shouldn't have told you so much."

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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