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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.

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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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