China is notoriously good at preventing people from doing certain things. Driving does not happen to be one of them. Efforts to stem China's fast-growing, toxic and delirious love affair with the car have mostly fallen flat; though initiatives like the no-car days Beijing launched last month, look like a step in the right direction, they serve mostly as Potemkin village rehearsals for the city's big coming-out party at next year's Olympics.
Now China offers something different, on paper at least: a week-long "drive" to promote public transit, culminating in a "no car day" in 108 cities across the country.
As part of worldwide Carfree Day, major roads in each city, according to officials, will be open only to pedestrians, bicycles, taxis and buses from 7 am to 7 pm on Saturday, September 22. Good timing -- that's two days after Beijing's first north-south subway line opens.
Never mind that the website for World Carfree Day, the campaign inspiring China's no car day, is apparently blocked in China.When Beijing cut 800,000 cars (out of 2.8 million) during its China-Africa summit last year, it also cut 40 percent of its nitrogen oxide. Qiu Baoxing, the vice-minister of the Ministry of Construction, said the campaign could save 33 million liters of petroleum, cut emissions by 3,000 tons, and reduce accidents on the world's deadliest roads.
"The move is to highlight the position of public transport, which should play an even bigger role in modern cities to conserve energy and control emissions," said Mr. Qiu, whose enthusiasm for sustainability ranks with that of SEPA head Pan Yue. He sounded like he was echoing calls this week in London for that city to ban cars completely.
Still, the campaign, called "Green Transport and Health," and set to become an annual affair, may not amount to much more than more propaganda and preparation for the Olympics. If cities like Beijing are to get serious about limiting car usage, carrots like improved public transit and sticks like higher car registration fees and congestion taxes are needed.
It also doesn't help that the government makes a lot of money off the auto industry, that cars are, as everywhere, often depicted as symbols of upward mobility and coolness, and that the spreading expanse of urban space make the car more appealing than China’s old dependable vehicle of choice—the bicycle.
And then there's the fact that the government doesn't exactly walk the walk -- figuratively and literally: officials are not known to ride buses, bikes or carpool. In a country where most are still too poor to own private cars, their vehicles are purchased by the state. Ironically, it is their infamous, Communist-sanctioned fancy black sedans (pictured here) that may be the country's most common expression of its materialistic ambitions.
Anecdotally, Beijing's crawling traffic has been just slightly better than normal in the past two days, due less perhaps to the public campaign and more to serious discouragement of government vehicles. When the week is out though, the cars will return, and continue to grow in number. Until of course the thinking behind "no car days" becomes a driving philosophy.
Photo by Proggie