Car sales, decimated across much of the world, are still holding up reasonably well in China. Sales growth has slowed a little but is expected to recover once the global economy starts to show more signs of life.
But the country is now wrestling with the question of how to reduce increased vehicle emissions and traffic congestion. The authorities in Beijing have come up with a peculiar solution: offer incentives to encourage people to buy cars (in order to stimulate the economy), but then prevent them from driving them!
In the wake of its success in taking cars off the road during the Olympics, Beijing introduced the “driving one day less each week” programme. The restriction bans private cars from roads on one weekday every week, based on the last digit of the number plate, so cars with number plates ending in 0 or 5 are taken off roads on Monday, while those ending in 1 or 6 are banned on Tuesday and so on. In effect this removes 20% of the city’s cars from the roads each weekday.
Thanks to the rule, congestion has eased considerably in the capital. The city’s traffic authorities say that the number of city roads affected by traffic jams reduced from 422 to 249 and that total traffic congestion time per day dropped 5 hours 15 minutes, says the South China Morning Post. “Seriously congested” hours also dropped from 1 hour 45 minutes to zero.
Most car owners have come to accept the vehicle restrictions. According to a survey published by the Beijing Social Facts and Public Opinion Survey Centre and the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, over 80% of private car owners are now supportive of a long-term implementation of the ban. In light of the favourable result, early this week local authorities in Beijing have extended it for another year.
Legal experts, however, have argued that the ban constitutes a challenge to property rights. Deng Zemin, a lawyer at Beijing’s Yingdao Law Firm, said: “From a legal perspective, restricting car drivers their right to use their car, even just one day out of a week, is undeniably an infringement.” He also reckons that in the long run, the ban will prove to have little impact on the city’s traffic. Others are sceptical too. Beijing has already seen the number of privately-owned vehicles increase by 20% from less than two years ago. At the current growth rate, the number of cars on the road will be back to its pre-ban days within two years, whatever the restrictions in place.
If you are trying to lower the number of cars on the road, you should also be looking to improve the city’s public transportation system.
But according to Shi Qixin, an environmental expert in Tsinghua University, public transport in Beijing is vastly underutilized. In cities like Tokyo, New York and Paris, public transport handles about 75% of the total traffic volume, while in Beijing it is only 40%. Unless the government increases spending on the public transport alternatives, the city’s traffic situation (and air pollution) will deteriorate. “As a metropolis with a population of more than 16 million, the city has to adopt control measures while forcefully developing transportation services,” agrees Xu Kangming, an international consultant on urban transportation.
Paradoxically, the decision to extend restrictions on cars has created an unexpected winner: car companies. Car sales have not slowed as a result of the ban, and wealthier citizens are trying to evade the restrictions by purchasing additional vehicles, says China Daily. With a different number plate, the extra car is pressed into service on the previously restricted day.
With the government keen to promote car sales in a flagging economy, perhaps this is one rule-flouting that it will welcome.
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