Beijing municipal government will today announce controversial policies to tackle the capital's traffic congestion, after a week-long public consultation that drew hot debate on the internet and triggered a frenzy of car buying.
Fearing the government may finally impose controls on car ownership, showrooms and registration offices were packed. Last week alone, the municipal traffic management bureau registered 30,000 new vehicles, double the average of the past several months. The capital already has more than 4.76 million registered vehicles.
'I left home before seven and took North Fifth Ring Road as usual,' office worker Liang Xun said. 'It's usually a 40-minute drive but today it took me more than an hour. For every dozen cars on the road there was a new one without a number plate.
At a Buick dealership in Dongcheng district, the price of an Excelle 1.6 LE-AT minus extras was 114,900 yuan at the weekend. In March, 113,000 yuan could cover everything - the car itself, tax, insurance and other administrative fees.
And yet sales were still strong. Sales manager Li Xiaolan said customers had to wait for at least a couple of weeks if they wanted to buy joint-venture brands. 'Almost all places that sell joint-venture brands in Beijing have been out of stock,' he said. 'You can try domestic brands if you want to get a car sooner.'
In a consultation paper released more than a week ago, the government proposed a range of measures, including capping the number of officials' vehicles, introducing 'congestion fees' in peak hours, better integration of different modes of transport, better urban planning and even building tunnels under the busiest sections of roads.
The government said most of the 3,000 public responses had been positive, with just 6 per cent against the proposals. But an online survey at the People's Daily's website showed 55 per cent of respondents considered the measures as not effective enough to solve congestion.
'I don't think these policies can solve the problem at all. It only pushes people to buy more cars,' said Liang, who lives near North Fifth Ring Road and works near Dongzhimen, on East Second Ring Road. She and her husband take turns driving on the four workdays their number plate allows them to drive under the government's current policy.
'If property prices were not so high, why would people live far from downtown?' she said. 'They have to buy a car since the only place they can afford a home is in the suburbs.'
Liang said charging congestion fees in busy areas, one of the most controversial measures in the package, would only convenience those who lived there. 'Who lives inside Third and Second Ring Roads? Those who have money or power,' she said.
Liang said that although the government was trying to decentralise the population by building up satellite cities, people still had to travel downtown for business and many bureaucratic procedures since most government bodies and institutions were still located there. 'So I suspect the government is only promoting car sales by releasing these policies,' she said.
Fan Xiaoqiang, a Beijing software engineer with two years' driving experience, believed poor road design caused serious jams. 'There are too few service roads supplementing the ring roads,' he said.
Authorities agree that road design beside and near the ring roads is weak, making the situation worse. Li Xiaosong , deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Transport Commission, said roads took up only about 13 per cent of the city's total area, compared with other major cities in the world where roads covered as much as one-third of the total area.
Li said there was a vicious cycle, with buses failing to attract commuters because of lateness caused by congestion and more people resorting to driving their own car, which in turn made the roads busier and slowed down public transport even more. Many also blame the large fleet of government cars - even though Beijing municipal government has pledged to freeze the number in the next five years.
But the municipal government cannot do much about cars owned by central government agencies.
'For one thing, many of the government vehicles in the capital belong to the central government agencies, which simply don't fall under the category of vehicles to be controlled,' Fan said. 'For another, how can the public supervise the government procurement of vehicles?' Xinhua reported in April that there were 49,000 municipal government vehicles in the city. But last month CCTV reported the capital had more than 490,000 government vehicles in 2006, if both cars owned by central government ministries and departments were also counted.
Frustrations also mount as the authorities have not informed the public about the number of government cars in the capital.
A law firm worker yesterday won applause from the cyber community after she posted on the internet a request form to Beijing authorities to disclose the number of their cars.
But Du Fangci , assistant general secretary of the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, warned that restrictions on car purchases could hurt the auto industry, which has been one of the major contributors to China's economic growth in recent years. 'Beijing is the capital. What it does might lead to imitation in other places,' he said.
In fact, not just mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai are suffering serious jams. Official data showed that on October 10, China's vehicle number reached 199 million. According to traffic management bureaus, at least 16 cities have more than one million vehicles on their roads.
Ideas similar to Beijing's have been brought up by local authorities but have either met with strong resistance or turned out to be ineffective.
Transport administrations in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou in Zhejiang have also proposed charging congestion fees. A proposal in Ningbo , a port city in Zhejiang, would require new-car buyers to own a parking space first, but it has not yet been adopted. Shanghai has been doing number plate auctions for many years, but still it remains one of the most jammed cities.
'Such measures may reduce traffic on roads in the short term but can't remedy the issue fundamentally,' said Song Guohua , a professor specialising in urban planning at Beijing Jiaotong University.
The main answers lay in a city's overall planning, including things such as sustainable energy, conserving the environment and managing the population. 'Another key thing is to change people's attitude towards travelling,' Song added. Many rising cities were repeating the mistake of the bigger cities: promoting car sales before building roads.
Additional reporting by Matt Ho