Beijing's "No Car" Days: How to Win Friends and Not Influence Traffic

In a booming mega-city where 1,000 new cars hit the streets everyday, encouraging its recently-minted drivers to opt for public transportation is not an easy task. Leave it to Beijing. Over a quarter of a million of the city's drivers have pledged to stop driving for one day over the next week in an attempt to ease traffic and improve air quality for the thousands of dignitaries attending the city's Sino-Africa Forum. Along with gathering "no car" pledges by drivers from 476 organizations, including many of the city's driving clubs and private businesses, the city has ordered 80 percent of the municipal government's and half of the central government's vehicles off the roads. They're even shortening school hours.

Aside from helping to feed China's hunger for Africa's raw materials (check this space for more coverage on that soon), the country's biggest summit in history serves as a convenient dry run for the Olympic Games in 2008, a coming-out party for the city that is set to add 1 million people to the streets. On the one hand, the "no car" day is an impressive and good-spirited initiative, and one you'd be hard pressed to find in any other metropolis. But even if Beijing's charm offensive (which includes painting its grass green) looks good, "no car" days haven't had much effect before. And they're certainly unlikely to reverse the deeper problem: years of shoddy transportation planning that have led to "11-hour rush hours" beneath perpetually mucky skies.To be fair, Beijing, with an official population of 16 million, is at a planning disadvantage for historical and economic reasons. With the Forbidden City and historic neighborhoods sitting at its center, Beijing has long diverted traffic to expansive ring roads; meanwhile, the country's economic boom has fostered a mass influx of rural Chinese to the capital faster than planners could have imagined. Meanwhile, rising incomes and increasing ring roads (a new one seems to be added every five years) are only encouraging sprawl and causing citizens to rely on cars for commuting between outlying neighborhoods and a handful of downtown business districts. The city's frantic construction rush and poor public transport system, which supports only a third of the city's commuter load, have only aggravated the situation.

While Beijing plans to upgrade its public transportation with a handful of new subway lines and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, smarter urban planning remains elusive. While many of the city's academics emphasize the importance of a poly-centric city with heavy public transit, along the lines of Bogota or Copenhagen, change comes slow in the Middle Kingdom. "While it would be better in the long term, from the market side, it's hard to decentralize Chinese cities because we are still in the early stages of urbanization," Yan Song, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has consulted the Beijing government, told me recently. "It also depends on the willingness of urban authorities to change focus from highway-oriented construction to transit-oriented development." Such development would place jobs and housing around transit lines, making commuting easier and creating more space for walking and biking.

It might also help narrow the growing class divide between those who tool around in jet black sedans and those too poor to own cars. "The president and prime minister are talking about a 'harmonious society,' about building socialist new villages, and improving the environment in the countryside," notes Song. "But what about the cities?"

Aside from social inequity, one obvious effect of heavy car use that nobody can deny is the city's sluggish traffic. Average speeds around the second ring road have declined from 44 mph in 1994 to less than ten in 2005. And with more cars come more accidents: a 2004 WHO report (pdf here) estimated that 600 people die every day from automobile accidents in China. A report by the World Bank in July slammed Beijing along with similar Chinese cities for a "piecemeal and ad-hoc" transit planning that was not only wrecking urban quality of life but clogging the city's economy too.

While it's unlikely that Beijing's drivers will lose their newfound love for cars anytime soon, it seems the government still has the power to increase public transit use. And given the impact that cars have on the city's environment (the government has said that car emissions account for 79 percent of urban air pollution) and energy use (see its African interests), the central government would do well to weigh those interests carefully--not just to institute "no car" days, but to engage in a smart planning that would make days like these history.

: : People's Daily