The List

The World’s Worst Traffic

Five places where soul-crushing gridlock is a way of life.

View a slide show of the world's worst traffic

BEIJING

Claim to fame: A 60-mile traffic jam on an expressway heading into Beijing has lasted since Aug. 19 and might continue for another month

Life in the slow lane: The ongoing jam on National Expressway 110, which links Beijing and North China's Hebei province, caused by construction and a number of accidents, has shocked the world. But Beijingers are used to epic-scale gridlock. Despite the city's six surrounding ring roads, numerous expressways, and the government's restrictions on car use, urban planners simply can't keep up with the massive influx of new cars that many of Beijing's approximately 20 million increasingly wealthy people (many of whom have never driven a car before) have recently bought. Some 248,000 new cars were registered in the first four months of 2010, according to the Beijing municipal tax office, a rate of 2,100 new cars per day.

Driving in Beijing, which came in first on IBM's latest survey of "commuter pain" among major world cities, is a truly frustrating experience: 69 percent of Beijing motorists admitted that on occasion they have just given up and gone home, 84 percent claimed traffic affected work or school performance, and the average commuter suffers through almost an hour of traffic just commuting to work. The city is pinning its hopes on one out-of-the-box solution: an enormous, solar-powered bus that literally drives over traffic.

MOSCOW

Claim to fame: Muscovite drivers face the longest traffic delays in the world, with waits averaging about two and a half hours

Life in the slow lane: Drunk driving, bad weather, streets designed only for military marches and Communist officials in limousines, and well-connected individuals skipping traffic continue to make driving in this city an exasperating -- not to mention costly and dangerous -- experience. The Russian Transportation Ministry claims that $12.8 billion -- more than the GDP of Iceland -- is lost every year due to the miserable traffic conditions. Overall, Russia's road-accident mortality rate is more than twice as high as some members of the European Union -- despite the fact that Russians have about a third the amount of cars.

The Kremlin has addressed the traffic issue on numerous occasions, but with the country's road infrastructure ranked 111th in the world and falling rates of public spending -- despite the Transportation Ministry's pleas to add almost 250 miles of road to ease congestion -- Muscovites are not happy. One study showed that over the past three years, two in five residents of the capital have had to wait at least three hours for traffic to clear (an impressively low figure considering there are 650 traffic jams on average every day).

 

MEXICO CITY

Claim to fame: In 2006, a single political protest caused a backup of half a million cars

Life in the slow lane: Some might think that freeway-clogged Los Angeles is North America's worst traffic nightmare, but according to IBM's survey, Mexico City is almost four times as tough for commuters. The Mexican capital has become famous for Darwinian traffic habits (an average of 1,500 pedestrians are killed in accidents a year) and pollution so heavy that it likely shortens life spans. Despite city initiatives to decrease the heavy traffic congestion largely caused by simply too many people and too few roads, more than half of Mexico City drivers said that the traffic has negatively affected school or work while 62 percent said that traffic is getting worse in a city with streets first designed by the Aztecs.

One uniquely Mexican trait is definitely not helping matters: The city averages about eight and a half street protests per day, further clogging the streets with demonstrators from all over the country. The city even has a website specifically designed to note every protest and the likelihood of resulting traffic blockages.

 

SAO PAULO

Claim to fame: The city holds the world record for the world's longest traffic jam at over 165 miles on May 9 in 2008

Life in the slow lane: A traveler to Sao Paulo might wonder why so many drivers can be seen doing such menial tasks as shaving, watching movies, or playing video games while at the wheel. Given that Paulistas regularly spend three- to four-hours each day in traffic jams that can be over 100 miles long, it should not be too surprising that motorists are making themselves feel at home. Not only do Sao Paulo roads handle the city's more than 20 million people poorly, but the city has simply not done enough to fix matters. The fast-growing and sprawling, decentralized megalopolis -- spread across more than 3,000 square miles -- suffers from extra traffic due to its lack of any fully functional ring roads.

Designated bus lanes, subway additions, and a car-restriction system that allows only a limited number of drivers on the road each day have done little to lessen the massive traffic congestion that costs the city an estimated $2.3 billion a year. The gridlock has gotten so bad that Sao Paulo's well-connected and wealthy have made the city home to the second-largest helicopter fleet in the world.

LAGOS

Claim to fame: Frequent massive car accidents cause fatalities in the dozens

Life in the slow lane: Driving in Lagos is characterized more by the act of sitting -- the standstill nature of driving in this booming city is so ubiquitous that Lagosians have created their own term for their city's traffic: "go-slow." Near the top of many lists for fastest-growing city in the world, Lagos for many years lacked any overarching plans for infrastructure, as its infamous traffic attests.

Overcrowding is not the only problem afflicting Lagos's roads, however -- vehicle-wrecking potholes, few working traffic lights, carjacking, corrupt traffic police, and flooded roads are also common. Traffic in Lagos, a coastal city on the Atlantic Ocean, is plagued by the fact that drivers are often forced to take narrow bridges, causing bottlenecks. Worst yet, according to urban lore, it's dangerous to try to buy any items from street vendors while stuck on a bridge because there is a good chance that they or others nearby -- knowing you have nowhere to move -- are armed and looking to steal all your belongings.

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The List

Gone Fishing

Five leaders who were conspicuously absent when they were needed the most.

ASIF ALI ZARDARI

Who: President of Pakistan

The crisis: massive flooding, political violence

Where he was instead: Europe

The backlash: For a world leader, being seen directing relief efforts (or at least showing sympathy for the victims) is usually a good idea when a natural disaster strikes. But for Pakistan's Zardari, forging ahead with a tour of Europe seemed more important -- even after U.S. officials privately urged him to discontinue the lavish trip, which allegedly included hotel stays that cost more than $11,000 a night. Zardari officials fired back, saying the president chose the "cheapest five-star hotel in London" -- the Churchill Hyatt Regency -- and even chose not to sleep in the royal suite.

The president's trip wasn't all fun and games, though -- at a public speech during one of Zardari's final stops in Britain, a 60-year-old British-Pakistani protester hurled his shoes at the president in light of his decision not to return home. "This was the only means of protest available in front of me at that time," the demonstrator said after he was released by police. Zardari's absence continued on Aug. 18 with a visit to the Black Sea resort at Sochi, Russia, where he met his Russian, Afghan, and Tajik counterparts for a security summit. Perhaps wisely, Zardari decided not to stay for lunch and left quickly after the meeting.

YURI LUZHKOV

Who: Mayor of Moscow

The crisis: Russian wildfires

Where he was instead: Receiving physical therapy in the Austrian Alps

The backlash: After wildfires started sweeping across Russia in late July, touching off a crisis that would cost the country some $15 billion and a quarter of its grain crops, Moscow's leading official announced he was canceling parts of the city's traditional birthday bash. But disappointed Muscovites should probably be thankful Luzhkov did anything at all to confront the emergency; if it wasn't for a chorus of calls for the mayor's resignation, Luzhkov might never have put his treatment for "a serious sports injury" on hold in the first place.

Six days into a rehab stint that began on Aug. 2, Luzhkov reluctantly flew back to Moscow to face the music. Then, after a mere 10 days back at work, Luzhkov returned to his holiday on Aug. 18. The mayor's administration-by-parachute stunned locals still recovering from the record-setting heatwave. At the height of the climatic anomaly, more than 700 city residents were dying every day as a result of smog and high temperatures.Despite the public criticism, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised Luzhkov for interrupting his vacation.

WYCLEF JEAN

Who: Hip-hop artist, Haitian presidential candidate

The crisis: Haiti Reconstruction

Where he was instead: In hiding

The backlash: Jean went to ground this week after reportedly receiving death threats. Never mind that his candidacy hasn't even been approved yet; Jean doesn't meet the residency requirements put forth by Haitian electoral law, and the country's electoral commission is currently weighing the legality of his candidacy. 

The musician's latest PR fiasco follows a string of recent reports by  website The Smoking Gun alleging that Jean misused money from his humanitarian relief fund to pay for -- among other things -- a parade float and sirloin steaks for a domesticated lion. Though experts say Jean isn't guilty of any crimes, the charges of impropriety aren't likely to disappear anytime soon. Can this man really lead a disaster-stricken country with more than a million homeless and an unemployment rate exceeding 70 percent? To show it, the rapper-cum-politico will need to work hard to burnish his public image and improve his leadership skills.

TONY HAYWARD

Who: Former CEO of BP

The crisis: Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Where he was instead: On a yacht off the Isle of Wight

The backlash: After famously wishing that the gulf oil leak be quickly contained so that he could have his life back, the gaffe-prone Hayward sought to reclaim that life even as oil continued to gush from the Deepwater Horizon platform. In June, BP's CEO marked the two-month anniversary of the rig's explosion by attending a yacht race in Britain. Though it's unclear whether Hayward was actually sailing his boat, the Bob, or merely watching, onlookers in Louisiana were outraged that the executive was spending his weekend rubbing elbows with billionaires -- at the unfortunately titled "J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race."

Hayward succumbed to calls for his resignation in late July, when he and BP announced his departure from the company, naming executive director Robert Dudley as his replacement. Hayward will receive a generous severance package in October and assume a position on the board of BP's joint venture in Russia.

TONY WOODLEY

Who: General secretary of Unite, Britain's largest labor union

The crisis: British Airways strikes

Where he was instead: On a Mediterranean island villa

The backlash: In the midst of a five-day cabin crew strike that grounded thousands of British Airways flights in June -- the third such walkout in a month -- the head of Britain's largest labor union evidently thought it would be a good time to fly to a private Cypriot villa with his wife. In his wake, Woodley left tens of thousands of stranded passengers to fend for themselves, as well as an unfinished series of wage negotiations with the airline's brass. Woodley's colleague Derek Simpson -- who previously angered BA by airing labor negotiation details on Twitter -- had to fill in. A spokesman said Woodley's Cyprus trip had been "planned a long time ago," but criticism of the union leader's vacation only grew when it was revealed that he had taken a rival airline to his destination.

After 18 months of negotiations, British Airways and its picketing cabin crew still have yet to strike a deal. Sixty-seven percent of voting crewmembers rejected a management proposal in July that would have ended the stalemate. And as the dispute drags on, Woodley and Simpson themselves are reportedly locked in a succession battle.

Kirsty Wigglesworth - WPA Pool/Getty Images; ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Image; THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images