CHRONIC JAMS: Beijing's Second Ring Road is bogged down with heavy traffic during rush hour on December 12 (ZHANG YU)
Beijing, known for having the worst traffic in China, is brewing up a traffic plan with the harshest ever measures to ensure smooth traffic flow as the capital's gridlock during rush hour and private car sales soar.
On December 13, the Beijing Municipal Government started soliciting public opinions for a draft plan designed to relieve the city's traffic problems. Although the draft has been approved by the State Council, feedback collected by the city's traffic authorities from ordinary residents over a period of a week is expected to impact the final plan.
According to the draft plan, the municipal government will take various measures, including expanding the public transit system, improving traffic management and curing car growth. It says Beijing plans to keep the total amount of pollutants emitted by vehicles no higher than the current level by 2015.
The authorities plan to levy a traffic congestion charge in heavy traffic areas. In addition to the current restriction that bans Beijing car owners from driving one day each week based on the last digit of their license plates, traffic authorities could initiate a stricter odd-and-even restriction "when necessary." The new regulation would restrict residents to use their cars on alternate days.
The draft plan also proposes different parking fees in different areas. For example, the fees inside the area of the Third Ring Road will double the original 2.5 yuan ($0.38), up to 5 yuan ($0.76) for 30 minutes. It's said the new charging scheme is to encourage people to use underground parking lots and avoid parking in the city center.
Many Beijing residents have welcomed the government-initiated debate on new traffic easing measures as an improvement to the city's decision-making process. After the 2008 Olympic Games, the Beijing Municipal Government started to enforce the one-day-a-week restriction without holding public hearings or widely soliciting public opinions.
Earlier in December, the Beijing-based Economy and Nation Weekly magazine cited unconfirmed sources that Beijing would ask car buyers to obtain a parking permit before purchasing a car.
Moreover, every household would be limited to purchasing only one car, and a 2-yuan ($0.3) "congestion fee" would be charged on every liter of gasoline or diesel sold, reported the magazine.
There were also rumors Beijing would imitate Shanghai to limit car registration by charging a fee up to tens of thousands of yuan for a license plate. One particular rumor suggested anyone without a Beijing permanent residence permit would not be allowed to register a plate.
Although such harsh measures didn't find their way into the draft plan, the report and rumors did trigger a new round of car-buying.
As of December 5, the number of locally registered vehicles in Beijing had increased 700,000 units from 4.011 million recorded at the end of last year, data from the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau indicate. The number was 2.58 million units at the end of 2005.
During the week starting November 29, Beijing had 21,000 new cars on the road, translating to 3,000 more cars per day.
Many buyers said they would buy cheap cars, priced between 30,000 yuan ($4,545) to 50,000 yuan ($7,576), just to get a license plate before any new restrictions are implemented.
However, an even worse traffic nightmare could be waiting for Beijing if car use was not effectively restricted.
According to a study by the Beijing Transportation Research Center, Beijing's car population will hit 7 million by the year 2015, judging by the current growth rate.
However, the roads and parking lots within the city will only be able to accommodate 6.7 million cars, at most, by then. At that time, the speed of traffic will only be 15 km per hour, equal to the speed of an easy jog, according to the study. Beijing Times reported the average speed of traffic on road networks in Beijing during the morning and afternoon rush hours are 24.2 and 22 km per hour respectively, which are not much faster than bicycling.
"The earlier we can slow down the growth of vehicles, the lower the costs will be," Xu Kangming, a senior consultant to U.S.-based 3E Transportation Systems, told Beijing News. He said the repercussions of failure to limit the ownership and use of cars would be disastrous for the city's environment, traffic facilities and people's transportation needs.
Guan Zhihong, a professor at Beijing University of Technology, told Beijing Times raising parking fees could raise the cost of car use and keep them off the roads, but such a measure included in the draft plan should have come out earlier.