China, Welcome to the Downside of Your Auto-Driven Economy

By Bill Moore

Posted: 12 Dec 2010

In the Chinese city of Hefei, population 3 million, there are 450,000 automobiles. Now that may not seem like a lot by US standards, but rush hour traffic is so bad, reports Global Times, that cabbies simply pull off the road and let traffic creep past. And the situation grows worse by 200 brand new cars hitting the streets of the city every day.

But second and third-tiered cities like Hefei are only the periphery of a serious problem starting to plague the country's megalopolises: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou. Beijing, population now 20 million, has more than 4.5 million vehicles, and nearly 2,000 more are added each and every day.

Little reported here in the West, this past August, the major Beijing-Tibet "Expressway" leading into Beijing was gridlocked for more than 9 days with 14,000 vehicles backed up some 75 miles.

China, it seems is not only in a race to be a 21st Century superpower, it's also discovering the downside of an automobile-centric culture. Although it still doesn't rival the United States, it's fast catching up with 85 million cars and a total of 199 million motor vehicles as of September.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences' Sustainable Development Strategy Research Team calculates that traffic congestion in 15 of the nation's largest cities is costing the economy 1 billion yuan ($150 million) a day. Commuters now spend 480 million hours more than their counterparts in Europe making their way to and from work. The average speed is now just 12 mph, ironically the same as when the country was largely a bicycle culture.

So, how does the country backpedal from a gridlocked future? Well, here are couple things they're going to do, or are thinking about doing.

Taking its cue from London, Beijing is going to implement congestion charging. While the details haven't yet been spelled out, the city is hoping charging people where they drive, when they drive, or both will discourage unnecessary auto trips.

Then there is the license plate limit scheme. Presumably, only so many plates will be issued henceforth, which only spurred record sales in November as rumors drove people to put in orders for cars before the supposed plan takes effect.

When I was in Beijing in the early 2000s, the city issued special plates that limited where you could travel in the city. The government also placed exorbitant taxes on vehicles, both measures intended to control the car cancer. Apparently neither worked.

Chinese media are also reporting that capital city's bureaucrats are considering imposition of a one-car-per-resident limit on vehicle ownership. Non-residents would have to demonstrate they had worked in the city for the last five years and already have a parking permit, otherwise they can't buy a car.

All these announcements and rumors have goaded the Chinese auto industry to warn, "the government should explore better road planning and traffic management instead of mulling ways to curb an auto-buying spree."

Shares of BYD fell 2.51 percent and FAW dropped 5 percent.

Xiong Chuanlin, the assistant secretary general of the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, commented on the situation with uncommon sagacity for an auto industry executive, Chinese or not. "Policymakers should seek to provide people more public transportation choices and make our roads more efficient for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians."

Maybe this is why General Motors decided to introduce the EN-V two-wheeled electric urban commuter concept in China recently. It sees the handwriting on the wall. What people everywhere in China -- and elsewhere -- need isn't just more cars, but mobility options that offer flexibility, comfort, safety, and something that travels faster than a Mao-era Flying Pigeon bicycle or Mercedes luxury car.

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