Beijing's new traffic rules -- how effective in the long run?

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Beijing, a city with a population of 19 million, suffers from increasingly frequent and widespread traffic gridlocks and the air pollution from car exhaust. I previously blogged about a paralyzing traffic jam incident in Beijing in August and discussed possible solutions. Last week, the New York Times had an article on Beijing’s traffic that mentions a survey by I.B.M. of 20 global metropolises, which rated Beijing’s traffic as tied for the world’s worst, along with Mexico City.

Registered motor vehicles in Beijing reached 4.71 million by December 5th, according to the Beijing Bureau of Public Security and Traffic Control. This year alone, the city has added almost 800,000 new cars, more than 2000 per day on average. To visualize how astonishing the number is, Chinese newspaper The First Financial Daily estimates that Beijing’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th ring roads have a combined area capable of “parking” 223,900 cars, which is only 5% of Beijing’s total registered vehicles!  In other words, if merely 6 out of every 100 Beijing cars go on the streets, the city’s artery road system will already be totally choked.

In response to this dire situation, the Beijing municipal government released a comprehensive five-year action plan last Thursday, following a week-long public comment period on a draft version (find the original Chinese document here). The action plan rightly places a big emphasis on expanding and improving the city’s public transportation system and encouraging bicycle use. Specifically, the plan seeks to improve public transportation by:

  • Adding 354 new subway trains, upgrading 114 existing trains, and installing air conditioning in 186 old trains;
  • Decreasing the interval between subway trains from 3 minutes to 2 minutes;
  • Establishing150 km new Bus Rapid Transit lines and bus special lanes;
  • Building 9 new public transportation hubs;
  • Putting in use 2,100 “new energy” buses, e.g., CNG (compressed natural gas) and electric buses; and
  • Constructing 1,000 bicycle rental spots with a total capacity of 50,000 bikes near public transportation stations;

In addition to boosting public transportation, the plan also adopts some measures to curb car sales and car use:

  • Limiting new car licenses to 240,000 in 2011 through a no-charge lottery;
  • Restricting vehicles from other cities from running within the 5th ring road during workdays;
  • Putting in place a moratorium on new vehicle purchases by Beijing government agencies and Beijing government-funded institutions for the next five years; and
  • Adopting a 3-zone parking fee system with the busiest central area having the highest rate (equivalent to $1.50/hour).

Other planned activities to ease congestion include:

  • Building 5 more citywide expressways with a total distance of 37.3 km and a number of express tunnels;
  • Completing 200 km of new roads in the downtown area;
  • Improving “micro-circulation” of 400 km of existing street networks; and
  • Building 30,000 more parking space along transit lines (But the plan also includes the construction of 200,000 more parking spots in residential areas and near public buildings, which we think will induce car use.)

All of the above measures should help ease the congestion, but I wonder for how long?

Cutting new vehicle registration by 2/3 next year is certainly impressive. Still, 240,000 new cars will hit Beijing’s already crowded streets in one year’s time. It seems the majority of Beijingers want cars. Car sales in Beijing in December rose to a record high, after residents heard about the municipal government’s plan to control new car registrations next year. Why is that? Is it just because people want to possess cars for status? Why has bicycling in Beijing – actually in all Chinese cities – kept declining? The Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport said on its website in August that only 18.1 percent of commuting was now done by bike, compared to 30.3 percent in 2005. The percentage for car use, on the other hand, rose from 29.8 to 34.2 over the same period.

I believe most people buy cars out of necessity. Beijing has become too huge to get anywhere by bike, not to mention by foot. Moreover, its streets are no longer so easy for walking and bicycling, because motor vehicle lanes get the priority. While Beijing’s subway system is increasingly extensive and trains run frequently, it is crowded almost all the time.

Photo: Packed subway cars at Beijing’s Jianguomen Station on Dec. 21, 2010 -- by Xinhua News reporter Li Wen

The root cause of Beijing’s transportation challenge is bad urban planning. Beijing is too big, making bicycling unrealistic for going to many places; and it is mono-centered, causing “tidal commuting” that requires high investments in the infrastructure in order to cope with peak transportation demands. 

As the Google map below shows, Beijing now has 6 layers of highway ring roads. I estimate that the total area within the 6th ring is approximately 800 square miles. For comparison, New York City (all five boroughs) has 300 square miles. From the map we can see that right now most of the area within the 5th ring, which is about the size of NYC,  has been urbanized.  Many experts have already pointed out the problem of Beijing’s “pancake” like layout. Since 2004, the Beijing government was reported to have begun creating sub-centers around Beijing in a bid to correct the single-centered layout.  These sub-centers, e.g. Yizhuang, Tongzhou, Shunyi, and Changping, can be seen on the Google map as starting to take shape.

Beijing City Map -- from Google

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However, it’s not clear how strong these sub-centers can attract the businesses that otherwise will seek to locate in Beijing’s central area. Will these localities fall or have they already fallen pray to massive housing development? Beijing needs self-sustained smaller cities nearby, instead of more “sleeping towns” like Huilongguan and Tiantongyuan, where there are few job opportunities.

Unless the municipal and lower-level governments can really master their political will to crack down on irregularities and corruption related to land development that defy a city’s land use plan and growth boundaries, I am doubtful that Beijing’s “pancake” layout will  stop at the 5th ring road. 

A good urban plan should be based on Smart Growth principles, which emphasize compactness, walkable communities, mixed land use, and transit-oriented development (TOD) that preserves green buffer zones alongside development strips to prevent urban sprawl and serve as development boundaries. But even if a plan is good, land development corruption or weak implementation can lead to developers ignoring the plan and building wherever huge profits can be made. 

Actually, ten years ago Beijing had already formulated a “Master Plan on Greenbelts” aimed at building sufficiently wide circular greenbelts along the ring roads to curb the city’s outward growth. But implementation has not been satisfactory: “the encroachment of greenbelt areas has been grave”.

Beijing's flawed urban layout will make solving its traffic congestion untenable in the short term. But at least the action plan released by Beijing last week is a stronger positive sign than before that shows the Beijing government’s determination to adopt bolder measures to pursue sustainable urban development. We hope Beijing’s multiple actions and its heavy investments in the expansion of public transportation will bring noticeable improvement in several years. In the long run, however, smarter urban planning remains the only sustainable solution. We hope the numerous medium-sized cities in China that are also growing rapidly will take heed of Beijing’s lessons.

With contributions from Kevin Hsu and Alvin Lin.