Since opening up its economy 30 years ago, China has gone from being a nation of bicycle riders to being the world’s largest car market. But now its major cities face traffic gridlock. To clear the roads, Beijing’s government has started a lottery system for new car licenses.
Cars are among the new status symbols of China’s growing middle class. New passenger car sales in China last year rose 33 percent to 13.8 million.
But all those cars are causing new problems for the country, including huge traffic jams.
Despite huge investments in roads and mass transit in the sprawling Chinese capital, Beijing’s roads can not cope with the increasing number of cars. A global survey by technology company IBM last year showed that Beijing commuters spend the longest time on the road.
Sixty-nine percent of Beijing respondents said that during the past three years, traffic had been so bad they had turned around and gone home.
"The government has mobilized a large amount of financial resources for building infrastructure for highways, urban street and mass rail transit," said Liu Zhi, the lead infrastructure specialist in East Asia and the Pacific at the World Bank. He works in Beijing. "But the growth of the infrastructure capacity cannot be as fast as car ownership because of limitation of space," he added.
In its latest move to ease gridlock, the Beijing municipal government this month capped the number of new car licenses at 240,000 this year, one third of the licenses issued in 2010. The licenses will be issued through a lottery.
Liu says while Beijing continues to invest in infrastructure, limits on car use are also needed.
"I think it’s very important now for developing cities how to use the demand-side measure [measures to cut demand] to manage the motorization process," said Liu. "I’m glad to see that Beijing is moving toward to the demand-side solution."
Some Beijing residents welcome the new measures. This 50-year-old man says he stopped using his car and now rides his bicycle because of the traffic.
He says he does not think that the government should impose too many restrictions but at the same time there are too many people buying cars. He says the city has developed too fast. The streets have expanded too fast, the population has grown too fast.
However, Wang Ye, a housewife, thinks the restrictions are not useful. She says the existing number of cars already makes the city crowded.
She thinks the measures are random, as if you are sick, and a doctor comes and gives you a random medicine and tells you that you will be well. She says there is no guarantee that you will feel better.
Beijing also will increase parking fees and more strictly enforce traffic rules.
Other fast developing cities in Asia have had similar traffic problems in the past. Bangkok, another sprawling metropolis, had notorious traffic jams in the 1990s.
The city built a mass transport system that reduced the need for people to drive around the city center, although traffic jams that last hours are still common. And the city has warned residents that the construction of new commuter rail lines, which begins this year, will worsen congestion for the next three years.
Liu says it takes time see changes.
"In the longer term, as long as we are moving to the right direction and to manage private car and traffic development in the city, and with more public transport in the future, and with the demand-side measures in place that is accepted by the public, I’m sure the traffic condition will get back to a much better managed situation than today," he said.
As the number of cars increased in China, safety has also become an issue. Many new car buyers are new drivers with little training. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health and China Central South University say the number of traffic-related deaths nationwide may be more than double the police report.
They say that in 2007 for example, as many 221,135 people died in traffic accidents based on death certificates, compared with the 81,649 traffic deaths the police report.