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Friday, February 6, 2015, 10:16

Putting the brakes on car owners

By AN BAIJIE in Beijing
Putting the brakes on car owners
Heavily congested traffic in Guangzhou in southern China. The city has followed Beijing’s lead in applying car restrictions. (AFP)

If he could turn back the clock, Wei Benwei would have bought a car before 6 pm on Dec 29, when the government of Shenzhen suddenly placed a cap on vehicle purchases.

Wei, 31, a salesman working at a technological company in the southern city, says he missed the last chance for a “free” car purchase as he was out of town on a business trip when the new rule was introduced.

“The policy was announced so suddenly that I could do nothing to seize the last opportunity,” he complains.

According to the city government, which announced the purchase limitation 20 minutes before the policy took effect, car buyers must now apply for license plates by lottery or auction. The move aims to tackle traffic congestion and air pollution.

There are more than 3.1 million vehicles in Shenzhen, which is expected to rise to 4 million by 2016, according to the government.

However, under the new regulations, the city will issue only 100,000 car plates, including 20,000 for electric vehicles, annually over the next five years. Half of the car plates will be issued by lottery while the rest will be auctioned.

The sudden policy change took many residents like Wei by surprise. A buyer surnamed Cui says she paid an extra 20,000 yuan ($3,200) for her car, as opportunistic sellers raised prices immediately after the introduction of the policy.

“It seemed like buying a cabbage rather than a car,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any time to hesitate.”

On Jan 4, Gu Dasong, a law professor at Southeast University in Nanjing, eastern China’s Jiangsu province, submitted a proposal to the Guangdong Provincial Legislative Affairs Office to review Shenzhen’s restrictions. On Jan 29, Gu received an official reply from the office saying the Shenzhen city government has not violated any laws.

The reply said the rules had been approved by Shenzhen City People’s Congress, the local legislator, during its annual session on Dec 29, which guarantees the legitimacy of the restrictions.

Evening restrictions

Shenzhen is not alone. Seven other Chinese cities have already put forward similar restrictions.

Beijing originally introduced a lottery system for license plates on Jan 1, 2011 and buyers participate in a monthly lottery for purchase permits. Following Beijing, the cities of Guangzhou, Tianjin and Guiyang have all chosen to apply car restrictions in the evenings.

Last March, the city government of Hangzhou in eastern China also created controversy when it restricted the issuance of new car licenses overnight — one day after the local government denied that a license plate quota policy would be imposed.

The restrictions have effectively eased traffic congestion in cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Hangzhou, according to local governments’ reports.

China added a record 17 million new cars on the roads last year as car ownership hit 154 million, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Public Security on Jan 28.

Of the 35 cities with more than 1 million cars each, 10 have more than 2 million, including Beijing, Shenzhen and Chongqing. Beijing has the highest private car penetration, with 63 private cars for every 100 households, while the average is 25 for every 100 households, according to the ministry.

Zhou Keda, a sociologist with the Guangxi Regional Academy of Social Sciences, told Xinhua News Agency that with the rapid growth of private cars, a direct restriction will help relieve traffic pressure.

To ease traffic congestion, Beijing’s municipal government has launched a policy to ban private cars one workday a week based on the last digit of the number plate.

Beijing has also restricted the number of vehicles traveling from outside the city and raised parking fees in urban areas in an effort to cut back on the number of cars in downtown areas.

On Jan 22, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport said the capital’s traffic congestion index was 5.5 in 2014, the same level as the previous year. In 2013, the capital’s average daily congestion time was one hour and 55 minutes — 25 minutes longer than in 2012.

“It’s the first time that the congestion index has not risen year-on-year, showing that the measures are effective,” said Zhou Zhengyu, director of the commission.

Beijing will continue traffic restrictions based on the last digit of license plate numbers this year, he said during the annual session of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress in late January.

During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in November, the Beijing municipal government issued a ban based on alternating odd-even license plate numbers to control air pollution and ease traffic congestion.

According to the capital’s transport commission, traffic flow was reduced by 70 percent during the APEC period. Beijing also witnessed rare clear skies during the period, making “APEC blue” a popular phrase.

Zheng Wanhe, a political adviser and chairman of the Wangfujing Department Store in Beijing, says it is “unrealistic” for the odd-even car ban to become a long-term policy. The government has already invested in new roads and introduced vehicle restriction policies, but much remains to be done, he says.

Although the transport authorities in many cities claim their efforts have eased traffic congestion, the measures are not welcomed by all.

Public attention

Xia Huan, a civil servant in Beijing, says he applied for a license plate four years ago, but his chances became slimmer along with the increasing number of applicants.

“I have to give up the dream of owning a car,” Xia says, adding that he has to rent a car at the weekends when traveling to the suburbs.

Lack of transparency in the car plate lottery has also drawn public attention, particularly after the fall of a senior police officer in Beijing. Song Jianguo, the former head of Beijing’s traffic management bureau, was probed in April for allegedly reselling plates.

Local officials explained that the urgent measures in Beijing were aimed at restraining car numbers while curtailing traffic jams. But many question whether the restrictions will work as expected.

According to a report published by AutoNavi, a Chinese company specializing in digital maps, Beijing remained the most congested city in China in the third quarter of 2014. Rush-hour commuters spent 2.12 times longer traveling than in non-rush hours, despite the city’s car restrictions.

Feng Yinchang, an environment expert at Nankai University in Tianjin, says a long-term mechanism is needed to tackle congestion.

“The restriction can only drag on the growth of car numbers and postpone the crush of the transportation system,” he says, adding that the problem does not lie in the number of cars, but in city planning.

The most important way to treat traffic congestion is by enhanced public transportation, according to Li Xiaosong, vice-director of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport.

Cities must focus on strengthening public transport and improving transit service levels, she said during the annual session of Beijing’s political advisory body in late January.

Giving Hong Kong — where many people commute using the efficient public transport system — as an example, Li said the cost of owning and using cars should be raised so residents will be encouraged to use public transportation.

“The car prices in Hong Kong are always 10 and even 20 times higher than those in (other cities),” she said. “The parking fees and fines are also very high in Hong Kong.”


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