Jan 22, 2014 07:20 PM

Beijing's Plans to Fix Traffic Problems with 'Congestion Fee' Stuck in Slow Lane


(Beijing) – At a press conference in Beijing in December, Steve Kearns of Transport for London, the city's public transport operator, displayed two photographs. Both showed London streets, one at the end of 19th century, the other at the end of 20th.

"It's hard to imagine that these two pictures are separated by only 100 years, judging by the primitive modes of transport we used before," Kearns said, a reference to the horse carts in the first picture.

But despite the advances in technology, modern-day traffic problems mean the horse-powered vehicles in the first pictures required the same amount of time to cross London as the autos in the second.

In 1999, around 185,000 vehicles entered the City of London in Britain every day, and traffic was so bad that the average speed was just 15 kph. However, after a congestion charge was introduced in February 2003, the number of autos in the city within a city fell dramatically.

Many other cities around the world have adopted the congestion charge as a means of combating traffic-related problems. Experience from these cities shows that the congestion charge has helped improving local traffic situation, help raise funds to build public transport and aid the environment by reducing emissions.

In light of these success stories, research has begun into imposing the scheme in chronically congested Beijing. In December 2010, the city's government proposed "studying the implementation of a congestion charge scheme on certain roads and putting it into practice over a given period."

However, three years on, the capital's traffic and pollution problems are worse than ever and there is no date set for implementing a congestion charge. The number of vehicles on the city's road has increased from 4.69 million in 2010 to 5.4 million last year.

In October, there were renewed calls for a congestion charge program as part of the government's promise to fight pollution from vehicles between 2013 and 2017. Other major cities in China are considering similar moves, although none has taken such a step.

Double Win

A congestion charge is essentially an economic method of regulating traffic by imposing fees on vehicle users that travel a city's more crowded roads. Charges vary by city. London and Stockholm, in Sweden, charge according to region. Singapore targets individual roads. These zones tend to overlap with low-emission zones, which control traffic flow by imposing strict limits on vehicle emissions.

Data from the Stockholm government shows that during a seven-month trial in 2006, traffic flow fell by 20 percent and air quality improved by around 10 percent. The city's air quality has improved immeasurably in recent years, with the congestion charge being perhaps the biggest reason for this. Residents who initially opposed the charge now strongly support it.

Milan is another success story. Silvia Moroni, of from the Italian city's environmental bureau, says traffic and emissions have both fallen since a congestion charge was introduced in 2012.

For years, traffic jams have been the subject of much debate among Beijing's Net users, who list it as one of their three main sources of frustration, along with air pollution and sandstorms. Reports from a government-backed institute, the Beijing Transportation Research Center, show that the capital's traffic problems have worsened since the 2008 Olympics. Data collected in November revealed that traffic during morning and evening rush hours increased 4.3 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively, from the year before.

Transport expert Wang Quanlu, from the U.S. science and engineering research center Argonne National Laboratory, said that a congestion fee kills two birds with one stone. "Not only will it reduce traffic congestion, but it also improves the city's air quality," he said.

Because the quality of vehicles and oil is much lower in China than abroad, less auto use would result in even greater benefits here than elsewhere.

Research Requirement

Many foreign countries have ways to analyze transportation and its impacts on urban areas, Wang said. This information can be used to create congestion charge schemes that are appropriate for an individual city. However, Chinese cities lack such data.

A 2011 report from the independent Beijing Zhonglin Assets Co. Ltd. said that Beijing suffers economic losses of 105.6 billion yuan each year due to traffic congestion, or 7.5 percent of its GDP. This included environmental damage of over 45 billion yuan.

Despite these figures, academics are still debating the full extent of environmental damage caused by vehicle emissions. Professor Xie Shaodong, of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Peking University, said that not enough research has been done to yield a figure.

"The policymaking of foreign government is based on scientific analysis," Xie said. "Before a policy is officially launched, a huge amount of time is spent conducting research to assess the environmental and economic benefits. Before we make policies, do we also make the relevant assessments?"

Footing the Bill

Despite the fact many believe a congestion charge would have positive results, some experts say that the severe overcrowding of Beijing's public transport is an obstacle to imposing such a fee.

Beijing has been very ambitious in its plans to expand public transport links. The city government wants public transport as a share of total transport to rise to 52 percent by 2017, from the current 44 percent. This pales in comparison to London, where public transport accounted for 85 percent of all transport even before the vehicle charge was introduced.

Gunnar Soderholm, an environmental official in Stockholm, said a good public transport system is a prerequisite to introducing a congestion charge. Ding Yan, an environmental protection official in Beijing, shared similar concerns. "Although the Beijing public transport system is developing at quite a rate, it is still not capable of supporting the city's huge population."

Then there are reports that officials want to raise the price of public transport. Government subsidies for public transport rose to over 18 billion yuan last year, and plans are apparently in place to introduce higher rush hour fares for subways.

Wang says it is simply not sustainable for the government to keep subsidizing public transport, saying: "Eventually someone will have to foot the bill." He said that if the funds raised from a congestion charge can be set aside to improve the public transport – as was the case in London – then the government would be relieved of a huge financial burden.

A Difficult Fit

Many experts Caixin interviewed said it would be difficult for Beijing and other Chinese cities to copy the success that London, Stockholm and other foreign cities have had with the congestion charge, especially considering their traffic problem and urban planning situations.

Zhao Jian, an economics professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, said that "Beijing's congestion problems are so deep-seated that there is traffic practically everywhere." He said a congestion charge in the capital would not be feasible in practice and would not produce the desired results.

Ding said the layout of Beijing's roads would cause problems. Years of poor urban planning mean the city lacks the structure of foreign cities, a structure that lends itself to a congestion charge. He also predicted that difficulties in pricing would arise. If the fee was too low, it would have no effect. If it was too high, it would alienate all but the wealthiest people.

Congestion problems are a symptom of the country's rapid urbanization. The Energy Foundation, a U.S. non-governmental organization, estimates that by 2023, there will be 200 vehicles per 1,000 people in China. Beijing reached this target three years ago. This indicates not only will traffic deteriorate in the likes of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but it will also worsen in smaller cities as well.

Gong Huiming, who directs the program, is concerned. "In 10 years, more than 600 second- and third-tier cities will face the kind of congestion Beijing has now," referring to the country's smaller cities and those in its western regions.

"But how many of those cities have Beijing's technological, managerial or financial capability? My biggest worry is that the authorities will waste the revenue generated from the charge."

Ding, however, was more concerned about the public backlash if the government fails to achieve its goals with a congestion fee. "If the air pollution is still this bad in a year or two, how can the whole scheme by justified to the people?"

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