CONGESTION CHARGING FOR BEIJING?

Having been in Beijing for the whole of the very successful 29th Olympiad in August, and then attended the Urban Transportation Management Forum organized by the Shenzhen Municipal Government to talk to their Planning Bureau about the experience of congestion charging in London, during my visit of East Coast cities in China l was struck by the possibility of introducing congestion charging to Beijing itself. Such measures need increasingly to be considered in response to the necessity both to reduce congestion and also to improve air quality in Beijing, particularly after the successful short-term measures undertaken during the Olympics come to an end.

Certainly the clear blue skies at the end of the Beijing Olympics were impressive, particularly after the concerns expressed by some about the possible adverse effects of air pollution on the performance of top athletes. The latter of course did not materialize, as we saw 43 world records and 120 Olympic records shattered in the course of the Games. Credit here should go to the initiatives taken by the city authorities to improve the air quality in Beijing over the period of the Olympics, which has essentially been achieved by providing better and cheaper public transport and by implementing the car licensing scheme. The success of the latter has interestingly led to local people calling for the extension of the two-month odd-even license plate restriction that allows the city’s 3.3 million private car owners to drive only on alternate days. In the case of public transport Zhou Zhengyu, Deputy Director of the Beijing municipal committee during the Olympics, announced that the reduced ticket prices brought in for the duration of the Games would be extended for some considerable time afterwards. Remember that in Beijing there was a cut in the standard price of a bus ticket by 60 per cent for regular passengers and 80 per cent for students. And last October, the price of a single journey subway ticket was slashed by 30 per cent to 2 yuans. So, not surprisingly, as a result of the cheaper fares and traffic control measures introduced for the Olympics, the proportion of Beijing residents now using public transport on a daily basis is up to 45 per cent from 35 per cent.

The national government initiative since the beginning of September to raise taxes on big cars and reduce them on smaller ones, in order to save energy and cut pollution, will also contribute to improving the quality of life in Beijing. Owners of cars with engines above 4 litres capacity will have to pay 40 per cent tax, double the existing rate. The tax for cars between 3 and 4 litres will rise from 15 to 25 per cent, while those below 1 litre capacity will be reduced from 3 to 1 per cent. Furthermore, the tax move is a good first step for the country towards an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly economy, while helping to save fuel and thus increase energy security.

Yet Beijing will still be home to about 3.3 million cars, and the figure is growing by 300,000 a year. The only solution to this challenge is the continuous development of the city’s public transport system along the lines already implemented by the authorities, but with one addition – congestion charging that will ration road space by price, so that the marginal cost of an additional trip by a car owner will be paramount in their minds.

The geography of Beijing, with its various ring roads, would lend itself very easily to congestion charging. A congestion charge zone could be introduced within either Ring Road 2 or 3 at the beginning and then be extended outwards depending on the success of the scheme and public demand for it. As in London, in order to win public support, the funds raised from the congestion charge would have to be seen to be reinvested into public transport, and some exemptions or at least a discount rate might have to be granted to residents within the charge zone. Nevertheless, the scheme could be put into operation very quickly using simple technology like CCTV at the entry points off the ring roads and camera enforcement using a database of car licenses. (Though l understand there is not as yet a national database of car licenses in China, and l am unsure as to numbers of cars that move between the various cities of China, this should not be an insurmountable hurdle for the authorities to overcome.)

So l look forward to one day visiting Beijing again and seeing road congestion charging, or least another variant of road pricing, being implemented to improve the quality of life for Beijingers. This should be the icing on the cake, on top of the outstanding investment already undertaken by the authorities, and would be consistent with the Chinese national authorities’ focus on people-centered and scientific methods of development.