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Fixing Beijing’s Traffic: Tough Medicine Time

No city has built its way out of traffic congestion. New roads mostly attract more traffic. Beijing, caught between the double squeeze of rising household incomes and falling car prices, is no exception. Municipal authorities are now proposing reducing the number of official journeys by car, imposing a congestion fee on drivers, raising parking charges and introducing odd-even license plate restrictions in the city center. Car owners, predictably, approve of the first proposal but not the other three, Xinhua reports.

Liu Zhi, who leads the infrastructure team at the World Bank’s Beijing Office, argues that far more intensive demand side measures are needed, from non-pricing controls on vehicle ownership and use to pricing controls such as fuel taxes and congestion pricing. Indeed, Liu points out, the Bank suggested more than a decade and a half ago (when there were fewer than 1 million cars in Beijing)  that the municipal government introduce such measures to choke off congestion before it started, “but a city heading toward hyper congestion is often like a patient not wanting to take the tough dose of medicine until the illness becomes too serious”. There are now 4.7 million cars in the city, with 760,000 added this year, according to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.

Liu points to Seoul, which reached the point of congestion in the mid-1990s that Beijing now faces. It has taken it 15 year of increasingly tough and not always popular demand-side measures from gas taxes to public-transport investment such as subways, bus lanes and cycle ways to ease, if not eliminate the congestion in the South Korean capital.

It is time to administer the tough dose of medicine in Beijing, Liu says.

The non-pricing and pricing controls of vehicle ownership and use in congested cities are just the means to correct the long-standing policy distortions, and create the right incentive for car users to shift to other modes of transport. It is time for Beijing’s car-owning group to understand this. It is time for Beijing to adopt demand-side controls.

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