Policy on cars driving people to distraction

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 December, 2010, 12:00am

Admirers of China's one-party system have long perpetuated an argument that exactly because of the Communist Party's authoritarian rule, mainland leaders don't have to appease fickle voters with stop-gap solutions, or face the constant scrutiny of lawmakers, unlike their counterparts in Western countries. This is supposed to enable the Chinese leaders to focus upon long-term planning and combine resources for mega-undertakings such as the Three Gorges Dam.

This may still be true under certain circumstances, but their policies are less long-term than many people believe. Much like Western politicians, the mainland leaders, who are faced with term limits of 10 years, also tend to prioritise their policies and spending to ensure short-term achievements at the expense of long-term benefits.

One latest and most notable example is the mainland's misguided, short-sighted policies on developing the motor vehicle industry without adequate urban infrastructure planning, investment and management under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao , who came to power in 2003.

Now this policy is reaping bitter fruits for mainlanders to swallow.

Last Monday, the Beijing municipal government announced a package of measures for public consultation aimed at curbing the notorious severe traffic congestion in the capital. The measures being considered include imposing congestion fees and allow vehicles with odd- and even-numbered plates on alternate days in some seriously jammed areas when necessary. It also recommended greatly raising parking fees.

How Beijing eases its traffic jams is being closely watched nationwide, not only because it is now widely dubbed as the capital for traffic congestion, but also because other provinces and municipalities such as Chongqing, Jiangsu , Zhejiang and Sichuan are also considering measures to curb the soaring growth of private cars. Some of the more controversial measures include banning non-residents from buying cars or requiring residents to produce proof of owning a parking space before being allowed to buy a car.

Understandably, Beijing's announcement has ignited a debate in the state media and internet forums. While everyone welcomes any effort to improve traffic, most of them have blasted the proposed measures, particularly those calling for higher fees, as ripping off ordinary mainlanders or stop-gap measures without effective fundamental solutions.

Ironically, even as Beijing and other cities consider measures to curb ownership of private cars, the central government's tax breaks and cash incentives for car purchases, introduced during the height of the global economic crisis, are still effective until the end of this month.

In fact, because of the concerns over measures to curb the increase in the number of cars and the fact the incentives are to expire, there has been panic buying of cars nationwide. Last week in Beijing alone, more than 5,000 new cars were sold, compared with the average weekly addition of 2,000 or 3,000 new cars. This has led one internet user on the People's Daily forum to quip whether the announcement of the curbing measures was a government ploy to sell more cars. Although the major cities are clogged with cars and the mainland last year overtook the United States as the world's biggest car market by annual sales, its private car ownership really took off under Wen's administration.

Since the beginning, the government has clearly adopted the short-sighted policy of boosting car ownership in order to grow gross domestic product at the expense of expanding public transport. In addition to building more highways, bicycle lanes have been narrowed to make way for cars, and drivers can park cars along the curbs all day for one or two yuan. Now Beijing has raised downtown parking fees to 8 yuan per hour. Following the massive urbanisation programmes and the soaring property prices downtown, more people have been driven to the suburbs, where the public transport network is patchy.

The government has only undertaken massive investments in subways and other public transport in the past few years but that was already too late. Beijing, with a population of nearly 20 million, already has 4.7 million cars and looks set to reach 5 million by February.

Studies have shown that Beijing residents spend an average of 60 minutes on the road, and the traffic congestion cost a combined total of 12 billion yuan (HK$14 billion) in lost productivity each year.

One elderly man interviewed on national TV on the day of the announcement was right on point, echoing the feelings of disgruntled mainlanders who bear the cost for the government's bungled policies.

'The government has made the auto industry a pillar industry and has encouraged people to buy cars. Now they have bought the cars, the government is asking them not to drive them?'