Sunday, December 26, 2010

Beijing officials struggle with exploding car ownership

The dynamism of the Chinese people is a wonder to behold.  And, of course, the country's astonishing economic growth has been fueling exponential growth in personal car ownership for years.

In the post-Olympics period, China's largest metropolis is struggling more than ever with its traffic problems.  In some respects, congestion and the responses to it are the perfect metaphot for the larger dichotomies in modern China.

For example, some bureacrats in Beijing city government still think in harshly Maoist terms.  The NYT recently reported:
According to a senior journalist at one official media outlet, that episode prompted President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to weigh in, asking Beijing city and Communist Party leaders what was to be done. The journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said Beijing leaders had suggested ways to halt population growth in Beijing and cap the number of new automobiles.
Mr. Hu was said to have rejected some of the more restrictive proposals as too draconian for a progressive national capital. The city opted instead to throw more traffic officers onto the streets.
City leaders are now considering a multi-faceted approach to dealing with traffic congestion, including more road building, more public transit, and higher parking charges.  Rumors abounded in recent weeks about another contemplated government action in the manner of the old regime, reported the Globe and Mail, with comical and unintended consequences:
[M]any car sales lots in Beijing were sitting empty as crowds snapped up vehicles amid rumours the government might try to restrict new sales.
“Sales are much better than we expected,” said Zhang Bo, sales manager at a Toyota dealership where customers have to wait two months for a Camry sedan or Highlander SUV. At a Volkswagen dealership, the wait time for the popular Golf family car was six months.
“The manufacturer is trying to increase their capacity, but the earliest they can get more cars out is January,” said a marketing executive at the dealership who gave only his surname Shen.
For now, the city isn't proposing any sales restrictions, though it said it may ban cars on alternate days “when necessary,” based an odd-even system using the last number of the license plate. Currently, the city bans private cars from the roads one day a week, based on the last number of the license plate.
Odd-even car bans were imposed during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and reduced congestion considerably, though the rule also prompted well-to-do Beijingers to simply go out and buy another car.
Sure enough, the popular rumors proved true.  The BBC reports:
City authorities will allow only 240,000 vehicles to be registered for 2011 - one-third of this year's total...
Officials said the new rules would not solve the full extent of the city's problems, only slow the down the rate at which they are worsening.
"It will be difficult to dramatically improve the traffic situation in a short time," said Liu Xiaoming, deputy director of the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.
"But it can slow down the pace of worsening traffic congestion."

Car registrations will be allocated by a license plate lottery system from Friday.
Even the Central Government's bureaucrats must bow before the city government's edict!:
Under the new rules, government departments will not be allowed to increase the size of their fleets for five years.

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