Beijing will issue only 240,000 new car registrations next year in an attempt to tackle the city’s chronic traffic congestion, such as shown by the snapshot of Google’s traffic map (right) for Tuesday evening’s rush hour; traffic jams in dark red. The new number is less than a third of the 760,000 new cars registered this year, which has taken the number of cars on the capital’s roads to more than 4.7 million — up from less than 1 million 15 years ago.
Eighty-eight per cent of new 2011 plates are being reserved for private cars. They will be allocated by lottery. Beijing residents have been rushing to buy and register new vehicles before the new regulations come into effect at the end of this week, with 50,000 cars reportedly sold so far this month, almost six times December 2009’s sales. This panic buying has led to Huang Wei, the vice-mayor in charge of transport since 2008, being transferred to a new job in Xinjiang, according to the Financial Times.
The new regulations apply to first-time car buyers. Drivers replacing a vehicle are exempt, so the measure along with higher parking charges in the city centre from April, a restriction to one car registration per person and banning cars without Beijing licences from driving within the 5th Ring Road in rush hours, will likely do no more than slow the worsening of the traffic jams. As Liu Zhi, who leads the World Bank’s infrastructure team in Beijing, argues, city authorities are going to have to take far more drastic action to cut the demand for car use, which is the prerequisite for easing the overcrowding on the roads. That means turning talk of significantly heavier investment in public transport into reality.
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.
No sooner does one traffic jam clear than another forms. State TV reports that since Tuesday more than 10,000 vehicles have coagulated into a jam on a 120-kilometer stretch of the Beijing-Tibet highway in Inner Mongolia, the same ill-fated expressway where a nine-day jam was cleared barely a week ago. Yes, there are roadworks, and yes, the highway is clogged with all those coal lorries carrying fuel for Beijing’s power stations, but China is learning one of the dirty secrets of economic development: the more motorways you build, the more they fill up with traffic.
Road works and accidents cause traffic jams the world over, and motorists in China are no strangers to traffic congestion, but Xinhua is reporting a jam that has lasted nine days over a 100 kilometer stretch of National Expressway 110, the highway between Beijing and Huaian in Heibei and Jining in Inner Mongolia. Traffic is moving at such a slow place that local hawkers are selling truck drivers food, and reportedly overcharging handsomely for it. Four hundred traffic police have been dispatched to keep order. With the road works not due to be completed until mid-September, there is little expectation that the congestion will ease soon.