Can Charging Drivers An Entry Fee Fix Beijing Pollution?

The so-called congestion charges that have been levied in London and other major cities are being closely considered in the Chinese capital, which has serious pollution and traffic issues.

Traffic jam in Beijing
Traffic jam in Beijing
Liu Jiaying

BEIJING Just a couple of weeks after hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, during which the capital's schools and state-run businesses were closed to clear the streets and the air, the city's notoriously awful traffic and pollution are back.

But now, Beijing authorities are busy reconsidering imposing congestion charges on drivers as a more long-term solution.

Levying congestion fees to improve traffic jams and reduce pollution isn't a new idea in Beijing. Since 2010, Beijing authorities have been proposing a series of congestion management solutions, including this one.

But while it's frequently suggested, such a charge has yet to be put into practice. Chen Yanyan, deputy director of the School of Urban Transport at Beijing University of Technology, believes now is not the time for Beijing to undertake such a measure. And it wouldn't change the city's serious traffic ills if it were implemented, he says.

Chen notes that a congestion charge would only work in tandem with high-quality public transportation services. Without improving Beijing's underground system and public bus facilities first, adding transport costs to private vehicle owners wouldn't be enough to drive them back to public transport.

Cheng Shidong, director of the National Development and Reform Commission's Institute of Comprehensive Transportation, agrees. The experiences of other cities where congestion charges have been carried out demonstrate that it would only function temporarily, he says.

Congestion and pollution in Beijing — Photo: Ian Holton

London has imposed a congestion charge for most motor vehicles driving within a 22-square-kilometer area of its downtown since 2003. The standard fee for vehicles is 10 pounds ($15.60) per day if paid by midnight on the day of travel, or 12 pounds ($18.80) if paid by the end of the following day. Failure to pay before midnight the second day results in a fine of as much as 120 pounds ($188).

The effect of this measure started off remarkably well but then declined. As Professor Peter Jones of University College London pointed out in a seminar in China's Hangzhou city, the number of cars entering the charging zone dropped by a third initially, but it eventually went back to gridlock again. Today's London has some of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the world.

Globally, few cities use congestion fees to deal with traffic jams, Cheng says. For instance, it doesn't exist in cities such as New York or Tokyo. He also says that the scheme first requires appropriate equipment — not to mention additional investments such as plate identification devices, and the staff to handle it. There is also the question of whether car owners living within the charge zone should be required to pay the levy.

Cheng is convinced that a congestion charge is not the only option to improve life in Beijing. In his view, other measures such as raising parking fees could be more effective. "Generally, cars are not the common means of transport for Beijing people," he says. "Though Beijing's parking fees are already higher than most other cities, the cost borne by the owners has not yet reached the true market cost. Besides, adjusting the parking fee does not require much additional cost and would also involve a lot less investment."

Besides Beijing, other cities such as southern China's booming Shenzhen and Hangzhou are also considering congestion charges. The Beijing Municipal Government issued a document in late 2013 noting that from 2015 onwards, the measure will be introduced in the capital's Low Emission Zone.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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