Traffic Congestion In Beijing

Modern Beijing Traffic

Image via Wikipedia

A particularly interesting panel discussion at GAF 2011 dealt with the issue of “A future of smart and sustainable mobility: What will it look like?” One of the questions posed to the panel, which included an environmental official from Chengdu, the head of the Chengdu Public Security Bureau, a foreign auto executive and Professor Li Keqiang, the head of the automotive engineering department at Tsinghua University, was: “ What is the balance between restricting the number of vehicles and managing transportation more efficiently?”

As everyone who lives in Beijing knows, China’s capitol city has a traffic problem. There are already 4.7 million cars on Beijing’s streets, and that number was expected to double by 2015 if the government didn’t take action. In late December, 2010, the Beijing government acted with what some call  the “toughest congestion-tackling measure in history.” Parking fees in the city were increased, vehicles were restricted from use on one day of the week based on license plate numbers, and a lottery system was introduced to limit new car registrations. For 2011, the Beijing Municipal Government decided to restrict the sales of new cars to 240,000, against the 700,000 new vehicles that were registered last year.

As the new year dawned, the rush began. The Beijing government said it received nearly 40,000 online applications for car license plates in the first 11 hours of 2011.

The measures that Beijing has enacted raises the question as to whether this will be the trend in China, as more and more people move into China’s already crowded major cities, and as China’s auto industry continues to crank out more cars. At the GAF 2011, the moderator of the sustainable mobility panel asked the panelists whether Chengdu should adopt similar measures. As might be expected, the head of the Public Security Bureau said that it should, and the auto executive said that as a “car guy” he could not support such restrictions. The environmental official did not believe that Chengdu should follow suit, but didn’t offer any suggestions.

As a Beijing resident, I was wondering how Professor Li of Tsinghua would answer the question, but he gave what I believe was the best response by repeating some of what he said in his opening remarks. Professor Li said that developing sustainable mobility in China required the use of three tools: education, administration and technology. Beijing’s measures only used administrative tools, and therefore was not the answer. Drivers needed to be educated and modern communication, GPS and other technologies needed to be employed to help address the traffic problem. In his opinion, only a comprehensive solution which used all three tools would be ultimately successful.

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One Response to “Traffic Congestion In Beijing”

  1. The problem of traffic is not one that can be solved administratively or technologically. Sure subways can be built, but unless you are going from one stop to another on the same line, the subway system is terrible to use. The subway is too crowded, has horrendously long transfers, and is hopelessly spread out in a sprawling city. You can try to administratively restrict access but that doesn’t seem to do anything. Last time I checked motorcycles and scooters with A plates were the only ones allowed inside the 4th ring road, however it is exceedingly rare to see an A license plate on any scooter/motorcycle. Most of the time they just don’t get a plate or get one from another province, or they get a fake one. Or best of all they just drive the B plate inside the city limits and nobody stops them.

    No the real problem is perception, the perception that car ownership equals success, the perception that car purchases are crucial for GDP, and the perception that nothing we do has consequences. Beijing is routinely voted as one of the most unlivable of the major “world” cities. What the city needs to get back to is returning to it bicycling routes. Today, riding a bicycle is scary in this perfectly flat city. Bicycle lanes are stolen by parked cars, people trying to cut through traffic and aimless pedestrians that can’t be bothered to walk on the sidewalk.

    Car culture is routinely pointed to by city planners as a bane on our society. They are ridiculously dangerous to both user and nonuser alike, they are loud, noisy and dirty. They seem to give their owners an obnoxious attitude to non car users. And they are the worst idea to encourage with modern expressways in a densely populated urban area. Only by changing the perceptions of the buying public can we even begin to tackle this “manmade” problem.

    PS I ride my bike for more than 95% of my trips.