Beijing is "trying it's best to improve the environment" for the Olympics, largely by shutting down factories. But to really improve the environment in Beijing in the long term the government will need to focus on a much smaller but more prevalent carbon and particulate emitter: the car.
In the past, the city hasn't shown much interest in lowering the subsidy on gasoline or limiting cars, which, in a typically Chinese conflict of interest, are largely produced by state-owned companies. But last month, in a reflection of global pressure on gas prices, Beijing instituted a 16-18 percent rise in gas prices. Like elsewhere, the effect has been to increase public transit ridership. According to today's China Daily, a survey by news portal Sina.com found that
Nearly 28 percent of those surveyed said they would considering switching to buses, while more than 12 percent said they would give up driving and take the subway...
They're just like us!
Among the 1,358 respondents, roughly 75 percent said they would use their car less, while less than 21 percent said they would continue the same amount of use.
Just as China is starting to go crazy for the car, in a hyperspeed replay of the US's 1950's car obsession, it's also driving up against the realities of the oil market and pollution in a way that the US did not have to for decades.
That gives China an incentive to take advantage of its late arrival to the automobile, reconsider its love affair and perhaps leapfrog the West.
Disincentives, like higher gas prices, are more effective at shifting behavior when coupled with incentives, like good public transit. Cities across China are already investing billions of dollars in new and upgraded public transportation like subways and BRT lines. By the end of this year, Beijing is expected to have opened four new lines, including the massive line 10. The city government is breaking the socialist mold by quietly using private financing for certain large public transit projects, like subway line 4, which is being built in part with investment from Hong Kong's successful subway operator MTR Corp.
But just adding public transit won't be enough: cities need to find ways to make commutes comfortable and palatable to those who can afford to drive. In Beijing, rush hour can feel like a long, tedious exercise in sweating and squeezing into tight spaces. Said one Beijing driver who is on the fence about public transit,
"It takes longer for me to drive to work than riding the subway, but riding the subway is less comfortable because there are so many people there" ...
China also has another leg up on the rest of the world: it still relies heavily on the bicycle. Though city planning has steadily given preference to the car in recent years, a backlash appears to be underway. It's abetted as much by fuel prices as by the sheer crowdedness of Beijing's roads. As one Shanghai TV executive, who owns a bright-blue VW Polo but hardly ever drives it, told the Associated Press,
"The traffic's getting worse and worse and you end up wasting hours on the road," Wu says, adding, "The bicycle is still the best vehicle for China."
Not everyone is listening to Wu: car sales are expected to keep rising steadily. Though only six percent of the population in China drives, it has already grown into the world's second-largest auto market, with private cars topping 38 million as of June 2008.
Demand is slower now: growth for both SUVs and passenger cars has slowed by about a fifth in the first five months of this year.
But rising fuel prices, coupled with environmental awareness and government policies and incentives, may help power the industry into lower emissions and eco-friendly technologies.
Last week, Toyota announced that it would be building Camry hybrids in China, amidst rumors that the government might institute preferential treatment for green automakers. It only sells a few hundred Priuses in China a year, but expects to build at least 10,000 Camry hybrids in its first year.
Better hurry. As Ted Koppel says -- he's just made a documentary about cars in China that's on TV tonight -- imagine the cost of oil once 9 million more drivers hit the roads.
Photo by Jiankun.