Let the Beijing Traffic Games Begin

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While I am encouraged by the efforts of the Beijing municipal government to alleviate traffic congestion, I’m mighty skeptical that things are going to change anytime soon. The latest news is that a new traffic plan is in the works and that Beijing will release a draft soon for public comment before moving for final passage. Here are some of the details, assuming that what has thus far been leaked to the press is accurate:

  1. An odd-even license plate restriction system in central Beijing
  2. Car purchasers will have to have a parking permit before they are allowed to buy a car
  3. A 2-yuan congestion fee will be charged on every liter of gasoline or diesel sold
  4. Every household will be limited to purchasing one car

Sounds fine. I can support every single one of those proposals, including some nebulous, unconfirmed reports about better bike lanes and other non-driver-friendly policies. But let’s face it, the car culture here is already very strong, and folks are quite creative at getting around these types of restrictions.

Remember when the city implemented odd-even license plate restrictions during the Olympic Games in 2008? Well, in anticipation of these new rules, it might already be happening again:

But even before it comes out, the unconfirmed details of the plan prompted a rush of car-buying and hot debate among citizens and experts.

In the first week of December, more than 20,000 vehicles were sold, more than double the 9,000 vehicles sold in the same period of 2009.

Many buyers said they would buy cheap cars – priced between 30,000 yuan to 50,000 yuan – just to get a license plate before any restrictions are implemented.

Nice, huh? Seems like a lot of people are saying “Yes, traffic sucks, and I wish the government did something about it. But I need to drive to work every day, so screw everyone else.”

I don’t think everyone’s on board with the notion of “shared sacrifice” when it comes to remedying the traffic problem. Well, that’s not entirely true. Everyone in the city is making a sacrifice in terms of time spent on the road and in damaged lungs so that every Li, Wang, and Zhang out there can own his/her private automobile. You’re welcome.

Aside from the odd-even license plate rule, what about the others? Well, if families are limited to buying one car only, then they’ll just put the car in someone else’s name, like Daddy’s girlfriend. Not difficult to do, and it makes it that much easier to hide assets from Mommy, in case of divorce — bonus!

What about that parking space limitation? Assuming that people cannot submit fake documentation for that, then at the very least there will be rationing for spaces, which probably means corruption. I think I’m starting to get a headache.

To be blunt, I’m not convinced that any of these rules is going to make much of a dent in the problem. The best item on the list is the congestion tax, but I’m sure folks will just end up buying cheaper cars to make up the difference.

I don’t think anyone else is too optimistic either:

[A]ccording to an online survey with 10,000 respondents conducted by major Chinese Internet portal qq.com, only 6.4 percent of those surveyed thought the plan would be highly effective. More than one third thought the plan would have no effect.

This is the point where I’m supposed to offer my suggestions for hack-proof rules that will fix the problem. Sorry. I’m no genius, and if it were that easy politically, I’m sure that government would have looked at other options.

It is obvious that, despite a feverish building pace for public transport, the congestion on buses and the subway is still a huge problem, particularly during rush hour. With Beijing expected to keep growing (population wise) in the future, there may be no way to solve that problem anytime soon.

Without great public transport options, folks will keep driving unless it is prohibitively expensive. A much higher gas tax might get us there, along with congestion and other fees. After all, even if families hide their second and third cars with third parties, someone still needs to pay all the fees, and is therefore theoretically influenced by prices.

What else can I say? I’m behind these rules 110%, but the task here is one step down from Sisyphean, and the future is not expected to be kind to Beijingers:

According to Beijing Transportation Research Center research, the city will have 7 million motor vehicles before 2015. At that time, car speed will be 15†km per hour, which is equal to the speed of an easy jog.

11 responses on “Let the Beijing Traffic Games Begin

  1. Ac

    If i were king…
    1) make the drivers license exam extremely difficult.
    2) institute strict no-tolerance enforcement policy for traffic violations, even minor…
    3) three strikes policy based on above…. 3 violations gets licnse revoked, driving without license = a year of reeducation through labor, no exeptions.
    4) pedestrian and cyclist right of way everywhere

    1. Stan Post author

      If there were sufficient resources for adequate enforcement, then I’d go along with all of that. Well, perhaps not with the re-education through labor part . . . :)

      That would all help make the roads safer and traffic more efficient, but we’d still have way too many cars on the road out there. Also, what would be the punishment for cheating on the driver’s test?

      1. Matt

        Given the large numbers of unemployed graduates, I’m sure that adminstrators could be found to enforce these provisions without great difficulty. If in doubt throw in a houku.

        Also, a blanket ban on government employees owning cars would be a great start. The BJ government could run the world’s biggest carpool. Lead by example!

    2. Old Eyes

      I drive in Beijing. I would much, much, much, much rather see better education of drivers. Easing congestion gets fewer bad drivers off the streets, but it does not cure the ills of poor roadside manners, unskilled/dangerous activities, and inharmonious drivers. In a typical 1-kilometer stretch of driving, I am party to or witness at least 3 unsafe, ridiculous, or dangerous drivers every day.

      Beijing drivers have horrible skills, and emphasis should be placed on re-education of 99% of these drivers. It also upsets me when I see both city bus drivers, military police (white license plates) and police (their blue license plates begin with “0”) in Beijing flagrantly break the law. If the police and bus drivers do not follow the road rules, how can we expect the average citizenry to follow the law?

      Maybe poor drivers are a crude population control method?

  2. gregorylent

    erp everywhere, like singapore … drive into the city, money out of the bank account … correlate cost increases with congestion … yep, only the rich will drive … just like, in the not to distant future, only the rich will fly … such is life

  3. Frank

    This city is about 2 years from permanent gridlock. The idiotic proposals described in this article will do nothing to alleviate the simple fact that at the rate cars are being sold here, it will soon become impossible to drive in Beijing.

    What was a 30-40 minute drive only two years ago is now frequently more than 2 hours. Two years from now you won’t be able to make it across town on a tank of gas.

  4. Brian Elwin Pomeroy

    Making sure everyone knows how to drive will solve the problem. In any country in the world the automobiles are sold and smashed up and people go and by another. If an accident happens, both drivers should be retested and the worst of the two would be taken off the road. If not that way, then maybe when one of them dies in a car crash.