Monday, April 15, 2013

Beijing Congestion

Beijing congestion is a daily nightmare.  In 2012 over 90 percent of roads in Beijing were saturated or super-saturated during peak rush hour times according to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau, and over 70% of Beijing drivers have reported being forced to return home due to prohibitive congestion issues.  One of the city’s claims to fame is a 12-day, 62-mile traffic jam that piled up on the Beijing-Tibet Highway in 2010 [7].  

China eclipsed the United States as the world's largest auto market in 2009 [3], with Beijing claiming over 5 million of those registered vehicles.  City officials expect that number to hit 7 million by 2015 - unfortunate, as the current road capacity maxes out at 6.7 million cars.  Under these conditions, the estimated average road speed in Beijing will be a snail-ish 15 km/hr [5].
Beijing is constructing new roads as fast as they can pour the concrete, but there is recognition among city officials that it cannot build its way out of this jam - or the air quality issues that grow even faster than those millions of vehicles.  As traffic speeds decrease and cars spend more time idling at a standstill, the emissions per mile driven rapidly increase. Even the most efficient car gets zero miles-per-gallon while standing still.
So, in addition to adding road capacity, the city is exploring a number of new initiatives and policies to reduce the number of cars on the road - or at least, slow the unrestrained addition of new ones.
Ironically, cars can cost less than the license plate that allows them to be driven on city streets.  License plates in Beijing can cost several thousands of dollars and are allocated to would-be car drives via a lotto system which is used to cap new automobile licenses at 20,000 per month.[8]
Winning the licensing lotto isn’t the only hurdle: non-residents aren’t allowed to apply for a vehicle license, and cars can only be driven every-other-day based on whether their plate ends in an odd or even number. Even the government is doing its part by not purchasing any new cars for three years.[3]

In addition to encouraging discouraging private vehicles and encouraging mass transit and non-motorized travel like all other cities, Beijing is even experimenting with ways to make private taxis more efficient road users.
City regulations require taxis to “permit co-hiring a taxi when all passengers get in the car at the same place and head in the same direction,"[2] with penalties for taxi-drivers who refuse to allow fare sharing and charging each passenger only 60% of the fare[1], but this has had very limited success.
While the taxis cannot say no, the people who need a ride are under no obligation to share their taxi. Some women are uncomfortable sharing a taxi with a man, particularly if it is late at night or they are going to a remote location[2], and many find that “Meeting someone by chance who is heading in the same direction is not easy.”[1]

Small-scale measures like taxi-sharing make one question whether or not Beijing is pursuing the kind of large-scale tactics necessary to change the momentum behind 5 million vehicles and counting.   What do you think - are these policies enough to turn the tide, or will Beijing traffic continue to slow to its projected crawl until it achieves a state permanent gridlock?


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