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China's Battle Against Traffic Treads On Fundamental 'Right To Buy Cars'

Analysis: Beijing's monstrous traffic jams have eased after the introduction of a new policy to impose a lottery system to limit automobile purchases. But as other Chinese cities follow suit, bigger economic and democratic questions are being rai

Bumper to bumper traffic in Beijing, China
Bumper to bumper traffic in Beijing, China
Qi Yue

BEIJING - Amidst much fanfare and many questions, the capital approved a new license plate "lottery" system last year to restrict the number of new car purchases. It was a policy aimed squarely at Beijing's wretched traffic situation. The city allowed only 240,000 new registrations in 2011, about a third of the number registered in 2010. It comes after Beijing saw the number of cars multiply from 1 million in 1997 to 4.76 million in 2010.

Last week, city officials announced a preliminary evaluation of the new policy, with Liu Xiaoming, director of Beijing Municipal Transport Committee, citing an overall 115-kilometer (33%) drop in bottlenecks, as well as an average time a driver sits in backups going down to an hour and five minutes, a 50% drop. Nonetheless, the evaluation did not specify how much of the traffic reduction is due to the restrictions on car purchases.

Has Beijing really found the remedy for this modern urban evil? Has it set a good example for policymakers from other Chinese cities to follow? Guiyang City in the Guiyang Province is one municipality that has decided to climb aboard, with others beginning to line up elsewhere. Despite small differences in the policies in Beijing and Guizhou, the aim is the same: to reduce traffic by reducing the number of cars people can own.

The problem with this logic is that any city in China, regardless of the severity of the traffic, now feels justified in introducing a system of limiting people's right to buy cars. Soon after Guiyang's announcement about restricting car purchases, reports circulated that said the National Development and Reform Commission would rule that the move does not meet the guidelines of China's Automobile Restructure and Revitalization Plan.

Don't punish the victims

We have long declared our opposition to the vehicle purchase restriction policy, which is not only harmful for the car industry, but also, even more importantly, jeopardizes the growing demand of the public for choosing their means of getting around. The errors in urban development policy, the poor transport infrastructure, and the lack of good ideas of the municipal authority are to be blamed, not the people who now must bear the cost. The idea that unclogging the bottleneck by limiting the right to buy cars ultimately misses the point. In reality, the congestion is limited to peak hours and certain neighborhoods in the city. But the policy makes it impossible even if one wants to buy a car to drive outside of Beijing, or just to enjoy the sight of it at home.

This is as ridiculous as saying that the gastrointestinal tracts of southerners can only enjoy Shanghai ravioli, and can't stomach the dumplings of northerners.

In fact, the solution should be in limiting where one circulates, not the cars themselves. Raise the cost of driving in congested areas, as is practiced in London, for instance. Raising the parking charges in Beijing not only aroused a much smaller backlash, but was also more effective. It encourages the public to choose public transport when they think about the hefty parking fees. Indeed, a recent survey of Beijing's transport authority shows that only 7% of people believe the lottery system has actually played a role in easing the congestion. It's the least voted solution of all. The survey results speak volumes about how much the public hates the policy.

We are not against solving the traffic problems. But the approach can be hard or soft. The public should have the right to choose, opting between a bus, subway, or car. The car purchase lottery system is notorious in limiting the ability to choose, and Beijing should not stand as an example for other cities in China.

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photo of Lionel Messi saluting the crowd

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