Can congestion charging soothe Beijing’s woes?

Olympic transport measures in Beijing were a great success, but the British capital may still have some important lessons to teach the Chinese capital about managing traffic, writes London Assembly member Murad Qureshi.

Visiting Beijing for the very successful Olympic Games in August, and then attending the Urban Transportation Management Forum organized by the Shenzhen Municipal Government to talk to their planning bureau about the experience of congestion charging in London, gave me an interesting idea. During my visit to the east coast cities in China, I was struck by the possibility of introducing London-style congestion charging to Beijing. Such measures increasingly need to be considered due to the need to reduce congestion and improve air quality in Beijing, particularly after the successful short-term measures undertaken during the Olympics have come to an end.

The clear blue skies at the end of the Beijing Olympics were impressive, especially given  concerns expressed by some about the possible adverse effects of air pollution on the performance of top athletes. The latter, of course, did not materialise, as 43 world records and 120 Olympic records were shattered during the Games. Credit here should go to the initiatives taken by the city authorities to improve air quality in Beijing during the Olympics, which were achieved by providing better and cheaper public transport and implementing the car licensing scheme. The success of the latter has interestingly led to local people to call for the extension of the two-month, odd-even license plate restriction that allows the city’s 3.3 million private car owners to drive only on alternate days. In the case of public transport, Zhou Zhengyu, deputy director of the Beijing municipal committee during the Olympics, announced that the reduced ticket prices in use for the duration of the Games would be extended. In Beijing there was a cut in the standard price of a bus ticket by 60% for regular passengers and 80% for students. Last October, the price of a single journey subway ticket was slashed 30% to 2 yuan (US$ 0.29). So, not surprisingly, because of the cheaper fares and the traffic control measures introduced for the Olympics, the proportion of Beijing residents now using public transport on a daily basis is up to 45% from 35%.

The national government initiatives enacted at the beginning of September to raise taxes on big cars and reduce them on smaller ones will also contribute to improving the quality of life in Beijing. Owners of cars with engines above four-litres capacity will have to pay a 40% tax, which is double the existing rate. The tax for cars between three and four litres will rise from 15% to 25%. However, those cars with below one-litre capacity will be reduced from 3% to 1%.  This tax move is a good first step for the country towards an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly economy, while helping to save fuel and thus increase energy security.

Yet Beijing will still have 3.3 million cars, and that figure is growing by 300,000 a year. The only solution to this challenge is the continuous development of the city’s public transport system along its current path, but with one addition – congestion charging that will ration road space by price, so that the marginal cost of an additional trip by a car owner will be paramount in their minds.

The geography of Beijing, with its various ring roads, would lend itself very easily to congestion charging. At the beginning, a congestion charge zone could be introduced within either the second or third ring road and then be extended outwards depending on the success of the scheme and public demand for it. In order to win public support, the funds raised from the congestion charge would have to be reinvested into public transport. As in London, some exemptions, or at least a discount rate, might have to be granted to residents within the charge zone. Nevertheless, the scheme could be put into operation very quickly using simple technology like closed-circuit television at the entry points off the ring roads and camera enforcement using a database of car licenses. Although I understand there is not as yet a national database of car licenses in China, and I am unsure as to numbers of cars that move between the various cities of China, these hurdles should not be insurmountable for the Chinese authorities to overcome.

One day I look forward to visiting Beijing again and seeing road congestion charging, or least another variant of road pricing, being implemented to improve the quality of life for Beijing’s residents. This should be the icing on the cake, heaped on top of the outstanding investment already undertaken by the authorities, measures that are aimed toward people-centred and scientific methods of development.

Murad Qureshi is deputy Chair of the London Assembly’s Environmental Committee. This article was originally published at The Qureshi Report.