In China’s car lottery, hope of win for urban future

A view of a peak-hour traffic at an arterial road in Nungambakkam, Chennai. Photo: S.S. Kumar  

Last month, more than one million people in China’s capital participated in a lottery of a different kind.

The residents of Beijing were hoping for the golden ticket that would give them not riches or rewards, but a prize that was far more ordinary: the right to buy a car.

Their odds were challenging — more than one million people participated in the lottery last month, with just 20,000 registration certificates up for grabs.

This year, China’s capital took the drastic — and, needless to say, widely unpopular — step of limiting car sales, a move that hopes to address rising traffic congestion and pollution problems that have left the city with clogged streets and smoggy skies.

The lottery system has been welcomed by urban planners and environmentalists here as a necessary and long-overdue measure — one which, they hope, will boost public transportation and inspire other cities, in China and in rapidly urbanising countries like India, to follow this city’s example.

“Every year, 10-15 million people move from countryside to cities. In terms of infrastructure needs and daily necessities, we are seeing their energy consumption increase rapidly,” says Li Zheng, Director of the Laboratory of Low-Carbon Energy at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University.

“When it comes to carbon emissions from automobiles and transport, we need to use more advanced technologies and also address issues from the management side. The fundamental way is to encourage people to use public transportation more. Urban planning has a very direct bearing on automobile emissions and the pollution problem.”

The number of cars in Beijing has more than quadrupled in the last fifteen years. In 2010, a remarkable 800,000 new cars hit the capital’s streets, reflecting rising prosperity and the aspirations of an expanding middle-class. There were more than 5 million cars as of early 2011.

While China has invested heavily in its road infrastructure — Beijing’s six ring-roads, elevated expressways that run around the city to take the pressure of arterial roads, are an infrastructure feat that India’s cities can only dream of — it has still, remarkably, failed to keep pace with the increase in number of cars.

To ease congestion, the capital put in place a system ahead of the Olympics in 2008 to restrict cars by banning vehicles for one day of the week according to their licence plate numbers. The move worked briefly, but gridlocks soon returned to the capital’s streets.

Beijing isn’t the first Chinese city to take the step. Shanghai introduced a car licence plate auction system which has helped slow the growth of vehicle purchases. The system has, however, spawned a new set of problems: the soaring demand has led to a bizarre situation where licence plates are now as expensive as the cars they will adorn.

In May, the price hit a record figure, with an average bid reaching 64,367 yuan (Rs. 5.6 lakh), leading to many Shanghainese asking the politically sensitive question of whether only rich people should be permitted to drive. Beijing’s lottery was seen as a more egalitarian solution, but it has been just as unpopular given the competitive odds. Guangzhou has, last month, followed suit with a system to cap car licences. Like Beijing, both Shanghai and Guangzhou have invested billions in public transport, building extensive metro systems ahead of the Shanghai Expo and the Asian Games in 2010.

Professor Li of Tsinghua thinks it is a matter of time before other cities, in China and in developing countries like India, follow suit, with increasing pressure to reduce emissions and tackle pollution problems. He welcomes a proposed move to introduce congestion fees in the heart of Beijing, following the example of London.

“This is also a problem of human behaviour,” he says. “We should let people know, in a way to appeal to their values and perceptions, that it is simply good to use cars less.”

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 8:44:31 PM |

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