All those new cars and no place to park
Will Hao is well acquainted with a Beijing automobile paradox: the government encourages people to buy cars, but there's hardly room to drive them and almost nowhere to park.
'Usually it takes me 20 minutes to find a parking space when I go to buy supplies with my girlfriend during weekends,' said Will, who owns both a Honda Accord and a Mercedes-Benz C280. Parking fees have jumped to 10 yuan per hour in places like Xidan, a business district in the second ring, and in Zhongguancun, a shopping area located in the northwest of the fourth ring, he said.
Like others, he often parks his car in nearby neighbourhoods, which can be a long way from his destination. And when there aren't enough parking spaces in the neighbourhoods, it's common in Beijing to see cars parked in bicycle lanes next to the boulevards - the only option for many who live in the city's hutong because there is no room in their narrow alleyways.
Part of the problem is Beijing's eagerness to boost car sales as part of its 4 trillion yuan stimulus package to encourage domestic consumption.
The State Council decided last December to increase the trade-in subsidy for older, higher-polluting vehicles to 18,000 yuan from 6,000 yuan. The government also extended until January 2013 the rural subsidy programme under which villagers can get up to 5,000 yuan to buy a 30,000 to 40,000 yuan car.
With the incentives, the mainland recorded nationwide vehicle sales of 13.6 million units last year, up about 45 per cent from 2008's 9.38 million units. This made China the world's leader in car sales on a unit basis.
Currently, there are more than four million vehicles owned by people living in Beijing and an average of 1,500 new cars are added to the roads every day.
The flood of new cars has had an impact. Drivers in Beijing are already accustomed to traffic jams, but a recent media report stated that traffic gridlocked in the capital has risen from 3.5 hours per day two years ago to five hours per day this year. Added to the traffic problem is a lack of parking spaces.
According to figures from Beijing Traffic Management Bureau, there are 64,049 roadside parking spaces in public areas as of April. The bureau plans to add 3,000 roadside parking lots this year.
If private parking spaces were included, there were around 200,000 spaces available in Beijing in 2004. The government planned to add another 400,000 parking spaces in the period 2005 to 2010, according to mainland reports.
There are no official statistics for total parking spaces in Beijing but the yawning gap evident between the number of cars in the city and available parking spaces remains an urgent problem that awaits a solution.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government implemented a no-driving days policy based on odd- and even-numbered licence plates, which cut the number of cars on the road each day by 50 per cent.
After the Olympics, the local government adjusted the policy. Licence plate numbers ending with one and six are prohibited from driving on Mondays, while plates ending in two and seven cannot be driven on Tuesdays. This reduces the number of cars by 20 per cent but does not really address the parking problem.
Zhao Hong, director of the economic studies centre at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, is sceptical about solving either problem during the next five-year plan.
'The thing is, developers are reluctant to build parking spaces when they get land for development due to profit concerns,' said Zhao.
Guan Hongzhi, a professor at the Beijing University of Technology, suggested the government should require new car owners to get a type of parking pass that guaranteed they had some place to park their cars.
'When a city's traffic develops to a certain extent, the government should learn to manage the supply and demand condition,' said Guan. 'The no-driving day is only a tentative solution for these problems,' said urban transport researcher Ma Lin. 'In the long run, the city should develop a more comprehensive public transportation system.'
Meanwhile, drivers struggle to cope with the shortage of parking spaces.
'In just one year the parking fee in Wangfujing has been raised from two yuan per hour to eight yuan per hour,' said Wang Wei, who recently bought a new car. 'Expensive and scarce parking spaces may prevent people from driving their cars very often,' he said.
Gridlock in Beijing
For up to five hours per day traffic is at a standstill in Beijing
This is the number of new cars added to China's roads last year: 13.6m