Breathing Easier: Beijing Extends Car Restrictions for Another Year

Beijing authorities have announced that driving restrictions will be extended another year, as part of the city’s overall strategy to reduce airborne pollution and traffic congestion, according to reports from China’s state-run media. The plan hopes to take 930,000, or roughly 20%, of Beijing’s over 3.6 million vehicles off the road each weekday.

Starting Monday, April 13, cars will be banned from metro roads one day per working week, depending on the last digit of their license plate. There will be no restriction on weekend driving.

This measure represents the most strict action taken since lifting a ban that was put in place one month prior to and during the Olympics, wherein vehicles were prohibited from driving in Beijing every other day, as officials scrambled to achieve decent air quality and clear roadways for the competing athletes and attendees.

While pollution levels have not been as low as in August and September – Beijing achieved its lowest pollution levels in at least eight years under the alternating odd-even restrictions – the less harsh restrictions have not been entirely for naught. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection air pollution data, the pollution index average was 82 between October 2008 and February this year, well below seasonal averages of previous years.

Unlike most cities, where such restrictions would cause mild outrage, or at least grumbles of discontent, among the public, the decision to reinstate the directive was made made in part based on public surveys that yielded 70 percent support for the ban. A more recent survey of roughly 3,600 car owners, conducted by the municipal-run Beijing Traffic Research Center, showed almost 90 percent of city residents support the restrictions and are willing to see the rules extended.

The measures aim to reduce daily vehicle emissions by 750 tons, according to the head of vehicle management section of the Beijing municipal environmental protection bureau, Li Kunsheng, who optimistically asserted “Beijing’s air quality is getting better”.

While official comments on Beijing’s air quality have, in the past, blatantly contradicted the recorded levels of pollution easily visible in the sky, Li’s recent comment appears consistent with the view from the ground. Danwei, a Beijing-based online chronicle of media and urban life, recently captured this typically rare shot of an exceedingly blue sky in springtime, when the city is normally haranged not only by smog, but also seasonal sand storms coming from the country’s Western Gobi Desert.

Unlike other cities, such as London and Shanghai, which have tackled air quality and traffic problems by extending a congestion charge system, charging high fees for license plates, and capping the total number of plates sold, the cost of driving in Beijing remains comparatively low. Though Beijing and Shanghai have comparable population and levels of wealth, Shanghai has only one-sixth the vehicle owners Beijing has. This may explain, in part, why the city is so jammed with automobiles.

Lower administrative fees are not the only factor of more abundant drivers in Beijing. Until now, state-controlled below market gas prices have given drivers little incentive to stay off the road. Although a gas consumption tax was enacted earlier this year, pump prices remain low, due to falling global commodity prices, and drivers remain largely unaffected by the legislation. Only if and when barrel prices rebound can we expect to see drivers, sensitive to the price of fuel, choosing public transport instead.

Beijing municipal leaders hope an expanded urban public transportation will be the holy grail for getting people off the car-choked roads. The city has invested considerable money in a comprehensive Bus Rapid Transit system in advance of the Olympcs and plans, by 2012, to have 420 km (260 mi) of subway lines in operation, said Liu Xiaoming, director of the Beijing municipal committee of communication.

Nevertheless, car ownership remains a trend less easy to buck. China, now the world’s second largest car market, appears to have adopted the automobile for good. Reaching for an economic panacea, the government has pledged billions of RMB in stimulus to domestic automakers and called for 10 million cars to be manufacted and sold domestically in 2009, which will likely make it that much harder for local bureaucrats to keep Beijing skies blue.

Though certainly no holy grail for the reduction of electricity use in China, electric vehicles may provide some relief from China’s growing emissions problem, exacerbated in China’s urban setting by widespread auto use.

Vice minister of Industry and Information Technology vice minister Miao Wei recently announced that up to 50,000 RMB ($7,300) in rebates may soon be available on the purchase of fuel efficient and low-emitting cars. If not a measure that will keep Beijing residents from buying and using cars, or reduce city traffic, this policy mechanism could at least potentially help keep Beijing’s air cleaner.

Photo Credit: China Environment Law, Danwei

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