Guangzhou needs real rules, not ideas, to tackle traffic problem

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am

Beijing enjoys countless privileges and advantages as the nation's capital, much to the envy of other cities. But one thing they don't envy is the city's worsening traffic congestion.

So after it announced harsh measures to cut the number of cars on its roads late last month, Guangzhou, a city keen to be the mainland's Detroit, but also facing the challenge posed by an increasing number of cars, launched a public debate about how to deal with the looming traffic nightmare.

The city's transport committee said that if no effective measures were taken, the average speed of cars on main roads during evening rush hours would be 17.5km/h by 2013 - slower than the 20km/h widely regarded as the congestion red line for international cities.

Following a call by local government and the media, ideas have been flooding in, with many focusing on the needs of those without cars and restricting the use of official cars.

One suggestion said the government should compensate three-member families without cars, with the money coming from annual congestion fees of 1,000 yuan (HK$1,175) levied on each car owner.

One woman suggested each resident should buy just one car and be heavily taxed if they buy a second. She also urged senior officials to follow the example of some state governors in the United States and take public transport to work.

Another suggestion reported by the Information Times, a member of local propaganda authorities' mouthpiece Guangzhou Daily Group, focused on official vehicles and floated the idea of giving officials cash in exchange for their official vehicle privileges.

Many mainland officials have already been receiving such compensation following similar reforms launched in 2004. For example, some county heads in Hainan province, have been getting up to 5,000 yuan a month.

While previous compensation plans failed to stop the nationwide growth of official cars, the Guangzhou resident's idea goes further, saying that civil servants should be given real-name public transport cards, loaded with a set amount of money depending on their positions. They could then use the cards while taking buses, taxis, trains and planes for work, and they would not be allowed to withdraw the money from the accounts.

In return, policymakers would have to report each year on the number and cost of official cars and drivers and their impact on the traffic problem.

The plan sounds fantastical, but is a reflection of people's frustration at the slow progress in curbing wasteful spending on official vehicles, identified by President Hu Jintao last month as a focus for this year's anti-corruption campaign.

Guangdong's Economic and Trade Commission drafted a plan for restricting the use of official cars two years ago that was sent to its Guangzhou branch last year.

Unfortunately, no government department in Guangzhou followed the plan because, according to an official from the provincial commission, it was just a suggestion rather than an order.

The mainland media and various government departments have been talking for years about the need to cut back on official cars, initially to reduce government expenditure and then to ease congestion.

However, the measures implemented by Beijing last month to tackle congestion do not address the problem of official vehicles and Shanghai has done little, except to launch number plate auctions in 2000 that just targeted the number of private cars.

As some scholars have pointed out, it is unfair to blame Guangzhou's congestion on official cars since, according to a report by the Guangzhou Daily last month, there are only about 200,000 - less than 10 per cent of the city's vehicles.

The key is that if the government wants public support it cannot just urge people to give up their benefits.

When it hosted the Asian Games in November, Guangzhou introduced temporary measures to guarantee smooth traffic flow for foreign VIPs and athletes. The regulations included restricting city-road access to cars with odd and even number plates on alternate days, which eased congestion, but disrupted many daily routines.

Will Guangzhou be the first big city on the mainland to implement restrictions on official cars?

It is a difficult question but the public - in Guangzhou and other cities - is waiting for the answer.