The other night in Beijing I had somewhere to be at 7:00 that should take about 15 minutes to get to by bus on empty roads. But given that it’s Beijing, I left at 5:30…and I was still 20 minutes late. In related story, the next day I opened my pollution mask to change the filter. The one on the right in that picture is a new one. The one on the left is what it looks like after a month of casual (maybe an hour per week) use in Beijing.
Some problems in China are so complex and ingrained into habit that solving them will take decades; if they can even be solved at all. This is not one of those problems.
There was recently a hilarious report that claimed Beijing commutes have been slashed from an average of 145 minutes to 60 minutes since this time last year. This incredible 170% drop supposedly happened thanks to the odd-even license plate system that’s been in effect for three years – and it happened while over 240,000 new cars hit the road. I can’t imagine a single Beijinger (who hasn’t been bed-ridden for the past year) who believes this.
The 240,000 new cars are actually down from over 900,000 new ones last year, thanks to a new annual quota on licenses. But after doing extensive calculations of all the traffic reduction measures [looking at them], I found a common fatal flaw: they still allow the number of cars to go up.
If they actually wanted to solve the problem once and for all, it would be as simple as charging a toll to drive in the city. Singapore has a brilliantly simple system where drivers have a pre-paid card on their dashboard that overhead cameras scan, deducting money automatically as they drive around town. Prices are higher during weekdays and during rush hour. If traffic starts getting a little too congested, the price goes up and, magically, less people are on the roads.
The Singapore minister of national development said, “It’s not rocket science to know that if you charge people to use certain commodities, that use is managed and controlled.”
No, it’s not rocket science. It’s freshman economics 101. Use incentives and disincentives properly to achieve the desired result. Yet this is a concept that continues to elude many governments around the world.
While the number of cars has surged parking prices have naturally followed. The average cost of buying a parking space in the Beijing is now around 140,000 yuan ($21,726) while some spaces are fetching upwards of 800,000 yuan ($124,316). So what is the government doing? Accommodating the upset drivers by building 200,000 new spaces. If they had attended said economics 101, they would realize that when this measure makes parking more abundant, more people will have incentive to buy cars. Ditto if more roads are built. The problem will be solved very briefly, and then become worse. This is why several major cities have put caps on the number of new spaces that can be built.
The current measures being taken to alleviate traffic are all essentially gimmicks to pacify the greater public while avoiding too much agitation of car manufacturers and drivers. China doesn’t want to miss out on the boon that an auto industry gives the economy and the government doesn’t want to upset drivers – who are quickly becoming as whiny as Americans in defending their “need” and “right” to having a car.
Then there’s the social stability concern. Several drivers have beaten, and even killed, parking attendants over high fees. But, to put that in perspective, the average life-expectancy of a Chinese traffic cop is 43. And how many others are having their lives shortened with blackening lungs each day and dying in traffic on the way to the hospital?
A Singapore-type measure wouldn’t solve Beijing’s horrific pollution completely, but it would help immensely. And it would, without a doubt, solve the traffic problem. In fact, it would work in any city that has a decent public transportation infrastructure. It would dent China’s auto industry, but if the government thinks it can develop the car culture the same way America did, we may as well all start digging our graves now.
Drivers would be upset, but frankly they can cry me a river. Why shouldn’t they pay for their negative externalities? It would be an egalitarian measure all around that does good for the maximum amount of people. Is there something I’m missing here?