Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Why Is It So Hard For Beijing to Un-Clog Its Traffic?

An all-too-typical scene in Beijing. (Basykes/Wikimedia Commons)

Beijing, a city of 20 million, is planning to take harsh measures against its notorious traffic jams. According to The Beijing News (@新京报), a local newspaper, the Beijing transportation bureau is reviving a radical scheme that could keep half of its private cars off the road by 2013 in order to mitigate the capital’s notorious traffic jams. 

The last resort 

The “odd-even” license number plan was first implemented when Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008. From July 20 to September 20, vehicles registered in Beijing were allowed on the roads only every other day during weekdays, depending on whether their license plate numbers ended in even or odd numbers. As a result, the city’s normally poor air quality greatly improved during the Beijing Olympics. 

Since the scheme ended in 2008, a less strict “last-digit” license number policy has been in effect, allowing vehicles registered in Beijing to take to the roads on four of the five weekdays. The last digit of a vehicle’s license number determines the day on which it is prohibited. 

In addition, the local government has tried to limit the number of vehicles through a lottery system for new license plates. As of August 2012, the demand-to-offer ratio was 52.8 to 1.

Despite these efforts, the number of vehicles in Beijing has still soared, reaching over 5 million at present, compared to 3.5 million in 2008. According to the Beijing Morning Post (@北京晨报), the “traffic jam index,” a measuring tool invented and administered by Beijing’s government, was 10.3% higher in September 2012 than it was a year ago. In light of the declining effectiveness of the two policies and worsening traffic conditions, officials are now considering turning to the “odd-even” plan as the last resort. 

Will it work? Is it legal?

On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, the overwhelming number of commentators have expressed doubt that the “last resort” would work. @小强张世强 pointed out that some drivers, especially parents driving their children to school, would rather pay the fine than comply with the policy. “People would go with it if they cannot drive one day per week. But the ‘odd-even’ policy will motivate many more people, such as parents driving children to school, to disobey it. The restriction will hardly be effective. The fine is 100 RMB per day, and there are at most twelve ‘driving-prohibited’ days per month. Many parents would be willing to pay 1200 RMB (about US$192) for their children.”

@sleaster argued that the regulation would cause two important side effects. “First, the police officers would spend huge amounts of time and energy picking out cars violating the policy. They would not be able to deal with other business. Second, the number of cars on the roads would not decrease significantly. What if people buy two cars and drive them alternately? When the number of vehicles increases, there will be larger demand for parking slots. The parking problem will worsen before the traffic problem is solved.”

Some netizens have gone further, arguing that such restrictions fail to tackle the fundamental problem. @王冉 offered a vivid analogy: “Using crude, stupid ways such as restricting car-buying and driving to regulate traffic is just like treating constipation by limiting food intake.” {{1}}[[1]]用限购、限号这等愚笨粗暴的手段来治理城市交通,就好比用节食来治便秘。 [[1]]

Car owners are also complaining that the measures equate to an unconstitutional encroachment on their property rights. Like the U.S. constitution, China’s constitution requires the government to give citizens compensation when it takes their property. It’s a right sometimes ignored in practice, but one that Chinese have not forgotten. @鸡毛蒜皮的大事 wrote, “The Constitution protects private property. We‘ve paid full price for our cars. If you deprive us of half of the right to use our cars [without paying us], your actions are unconstitutional.”{{2}}[[2]]宪法规定保护私人财产,我们是付全款买的车,你不能剥夺我们车的一半使用权,你是违反宪法的[[2]]

Surprisingly to many, even the state-run Xinhua News Agency (@新华社中国网事) agrees. “When the ‘odd-even’ policy is revived this time, a question is unavoidable: What legal path the local government should follow to restrict citizens’ right to use their property. If this question is ignored, the negative impacts it brings will exceed the heavy traffic itself. ”{{3}}[[3]]单双号限行作为治堵高招再次在北京被提出,一个疑问又到面前——地方政府部门对公民财产使用权的限制到底要经怎样的法律程序。此问题如得不到清晰认识,负面影响将超“最堵9月”。[[3]]

Possible alternative solutions

Of course, when policy questions arise, China’s Internet commentators usually do not stop at blaming government. They often actively discuss what the right measures might be. Web users were not shy in this instance. 

In a country where laws are strict but enforcement often lax, commentators particularly focused on the ability of traffic police to put rules into practice. @-尼古拉斯-王- wrote, “The key issue is not that there are too many cars, but so many drivers [are] ignorant of traffic laws. They drive in whatever way they desire, and veer whenever they want! The key is to emphasize [existing] traffic laws and regulations more.” @米小猫 agreed. “If law enforcement is not strengthened and the cost of violations does not go up, Beijing will be stuck in the bottleneck.”

Some netizens, including @上下都是双眼皮, blamed the unlimited use of government-owned vehicles. “Why not start with the government itself and try restraining use and abuse of government-owned vehicles for private purposes? If that does not work, then we can consider other methods.”

In recent years, the government has already taken measures to limit the number of government vehicles and go after cases of abuse. The Xinhua News Agency reported on October 25 that since April 2011, nearly 2 million unregistered state-owned vehicles have been removed from the roadways. Yet web users like @范玄英 felt the problem remains unsolved. “Driving restrictions for all is not a good solution. The key issue is that many state-owned cars on the roads are not for public purposes. Officials and their families drive those cars to go shopping, dine out or to travel.” 

Other commentators have pinned their hopes on the development of a more robust public transportation system. @空空的湿乎乎’s tweet is representative. “I’m really not sure how the ‘odd-even’ policy would play out. It’s more realistic for me to hope that the opening of Subway Line 6 [would make my travels easier.]” @010危险男孩, wrote, “my personal experience tells me that more runs could be added during the subway rush hours. There is enough demand for that.”

Long-term dilemmas

The policy debate sheds light on two significant dilemmas behind a rapid urbanization and development process that has stretched the skills of China’s urban managers to the limit. As cities grow in size and population, the chaos and inefficiency generated by mismanagement and flawed planning make life difficult for urban residents. In order to tackle problems that emerge from the growth of cities, the government needs to adopt new urban planning philosophies. 

For example, @费厄泼赖 identified one possible direction for change: To decentralize functions and populations in the “core area” of urban centers. “[The government] could separate the functions of the core area of a city and build up multiple centers. Just like a CPU: The more cores it has, the faster its speed is. There would be no bottleneck then.”

Yet, the more fundamental problem lies in huge flows of centripetal migration. Already overcrowded, several metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou still see exponential population growth. As @刁总2011_09_21 complained, “What is the real cause of heavy traffic? Doesn’t the government know the truth? Isn’t it the growing population in Beijing?”

Indeed, a population explosion in metropolises reflects the long-term inequality inherent in China’s development. As the government continues to invest most of its resources in big cities, residents in a few metropolises enjoy higher wages, better working conditions, and superior education and healthcare. The contrast between abundant development opportunities in major cities and a limited outlook for the rest becomes the powerful magnet pulling people to metropolises from all over the country. What the government really needs to do is to alter an unbalanced development strategy that encourages over-centralization of resources in metropolises. Otherwise, the traffic gridlock will only be one of many severe headaches afflicting China’s giant cities.

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.