Visionary planning the only answer to gridlock
Cars have gridlocked countless great cities that did not plan for the explosion of private ownership. Not so long ago mainland cities remained exceptions. The automotive industry was still to take off. Urban planners had time to learn from other countries' mistakes and make serious efforts to integrate cars into public transport systems serving cities with decentralised, economically viable population densities.
Alas, that dream has become an urban and environmental nightmare. Building a massive automotive industry became a key plank of central government policy - economically sound, perhaps, but it came without an appropriate overarching planning strategy for the cities. Officials did not heed the lessons of capitalist consumerism. You can build cars faster than you can build roads. And building new roads to catch up with demand can just encourage more cars onto the roads without easing congestion. They need have looked no further than Hong Kong for an example of the consequences of that.
Instead, breakneck economic growth continued. As a result, such has been the success of automotive industrialisation and the failure of urban planning that the nation's capital has been paralysed by some of the world's worst traffic congestion. Officials in Beijing have been compelled to resort to a draconian measure of state control over people's lives - car rationing.
The municipal government has announced that it will allow only 240,000 cars to be registered next year through a monthly lottery of licence plates, compared with this year's 750,000 new registrations. Drastic thought it may seem analysts say this and associated measures will at best slow the deterioration in Beijing's traffic conditions but not reverse it.
Also, aside from a municipal government pledge to freeze the size of its own fleet, the new measures do not include any curbs on the 750,000 cars on the city's roads registered to central government agencies, some part of which must account for part of the estimated 300 billion yuan (HK$351 billion) spent each year on buying and maintaining luxury vehicles for officials to be driven in comfort and style. This hardly sets the right example.
Given the public perception of such extravagant and possibly corrupt use of public funds, the authorities can expect the public to seek ways around the new restrictions, such as bribery of officials and mass buying of cars in neighbouring Heibei province, which will only add to the problems. In Shanghai, for example, the introduction of number-plate auctions in 2000 has led to a market in plates authorised by neighbouring provinces.
Officials had little choice but to do something about the public discontent and economic waste caused by Beijing's worsening traffic paralysis. Other cities will be watching closely, with some also considering controversial steps to curb the growth of car ownership. In the long run, however, the solution lies in visionary nationwide urban planning strategies, including decentralisation of administrative functions that generate traffic, integrated with continued aggressive expansion of public transport. Hopefully, the way forward will be illuminated, if not mapped out in detail, in the central government's 12th five-year plan, which proposes to address the symptoms and roots of 'urban diseases'. Dysfunctional road and transport infrastructure must be numbered among both. If urbanisation is to continue to deliver a rising standard of living, integrated transport solutions are fundamental to its success.