Rushing too quickly to embrace modernity has a downside, as residents of China's car and smog-choked cities well know. Yet, as high housing costs force them to live ever-farther from jobs, buying a vehicle has become more a necessity than a status symbol. Understandably, the sudden decision by Guangzhou's traffic officials to limit new purchases has caused anger. As radical as it seems, it is a necessary step, but citizens are not to blame. Authorities are at fault for a lack of consultation and poor planning.
Guangzhou is the fourth mainland city to introduce the measure, after Beijing, Shanghai and Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province. With speeds on many major roads down to less than 20km/h and pollution from exhaust fumes worsening, a drastic solution had to be found to prevent further economic, health and environmental damage. Authorities' limiting registrations of new vehicles to 10,000 a month makes good sense. But it would not have been necessary had cities given more thought to transport systems and the government been less generous with subsidies.
In just two decades, the mainland has gone from being a kingdom for bicycles to one for cars. China is now the world's biggest and fastest-growing vehicle market, with car sales last year topping 18 million. The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers expects that number to rise to 40 million annually by 2020. Such a burgeoning industry is good for the economy, but while transport infrastructure continues to lag far behind, the consequences for society are dismal.
Beijing clearly makes the point. It, like Shanghai and Guangzhou, has an extensive and growing subway network, yet there is an expanding demand for cars. The morning rush to work is starting ever-earlier to avoid the traffic jams for which the city has become so famous that locals call it Ducheng, the Putonghua word for 'city of congestion'. Roadside air pollution is too often at dangerous levels and for much of the year, a grey pall of pollution hangs overhead. Officials see limiting vehicle numbers as a key strategy.
That does not sit easily beside growth measures, such as the one unveiled in May allocating 6 billion yuan (HK$7.31 billion) in subsidies for purchases of new cars with engine sizes below 1.6 litres. Even more substantial incentives were offered in the huge stimulus package in 2009, ensuring China would rapidly overtake the US in annual vehicle sales. But pushing demand without consultation and planning is detrimentally affecting livelihoods and quality of life. Copying the developed world is not sustainable in a country of 1.34 billion people. Rather than thinking of the car as king, authorities should be trying to discourage it. City planners have to put emphasis on bicycles and pedestrian paths as well as extensive bus and rail networks.