Beijing Traffic

North Vancouver based writer. Seeking: honest politicians; justice and honour; intelligence and humour; corporate integrity. Planning to move to France.

Beijing Traffic

Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was generally acknowledged that both the traffic and the pollution in the city was out of control; in 2010, a traffic jam on the China National Highway 110 slowed traffic for 100 kilometres, and lasted for most of two weeks.

China Toll Plaza
China Toll Plaza

The Chinese government is still building and maintaining an impressive network of multi-lane freeways, highways, and flyovers — with regular toll plazas — to move large volumes of automobiles relatively efficiently, but the Chinese government has also tried to move the country (or at least the major cities) away from internal combustion engines.

As well as making lots of safe space for transit users, bikes, electric motorbikes, and pedestrians, the Chinese have done one other thing to improve the traffic mix in Chengdu and Beijing: they’ve made it really hard to own a car. Much like the licences and charges in London and Singapore, rules in China pretty much limit car use in the city to the very wealthy.

Earlier this year Bloomberg Business week described the process:

It’s not the half-million-yuan price tag keeping Beijing resident Sandra Zhao from buying her dream car, a BMW X4 SUV. It’s the license plate she needs to have a conventional gasoline car. She’s been in a lottery pool for five years, competing with more than 3 million fellow residents for one of the plates. The complicated bimonthly drawing awards about one plate for every 2,000 applications.

Meanwhile, her husband has been on line since the end of 2017 with 420,000 others for a license to own a supposedly easier-to-acquire electric vehicle. He’s hopeful he’ll get it in another two years—those at the back of the line may have to wait eight.

China Green Licence Plate
Plate for green energy vehicles.

The plates are actually auctioned to the highest bidder, and added to that, your shiny new Bentley, Lambo or (inexplicably) Buick can only be driven on six days of the week – on the seventh, as determined by your licence plate number, you need to park it.

Fortunately Chengdu is one of those great cities with a wealth of speedy green taxis that can be flagged from the curb, as well as ride share companies like Uber. The result is a city where being forced to park your car isn’t really a big hardship.

Despite all of this, car traffic does slow to a crawl more often than not, and within the city region, car volumes predictably grow to fill available road lanes.  Still, the Chinese government is taking real steps to constrain automobile traffic, most significantly by making alternate travel modes as easy and affordable as possible.

Note from the author: Any discussion of China invariably leads to questions involving human rights, Hong Kong, and the surveillance state in the country. My two week visit to Chengdu and Beijing does not make me an expert; for a more informed perspective on policy and politics in China, check out episode 48 of Price Talks, featuring Beijing native Vivienne Zhang speaking with Gordon, along with Peter Ladner.


  1. Democracy .. so overrated ..

    Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others – Winston Churchill.

    In other news: BC now has Uber to combat ever increasing traffic while building condos unabated without any new road infrastructure. Will this lead to less congestion?

    1. Well, Uber will of course make congestion worse, but increased housing density really helps reduce the need for road infrastructure, by enabling people to live near where they work. It also enables efficient public transit and the provision of local services, reducing the need to drive everywhere for everything. Low density housing (urban sprawl) just makes congestion worse. Much worse.

      There are just three things that have EVER worked in reducing congestion. Increased housing density, improved public transit and building infrastructure for safe active travel (protected or separated bike lanes and routes). Building roads has NEVER worked.

    2. The downtown peninsula has seen an explosion of condos over the last three decades yet MV traffic volumes have declined. More people, more jobs, more entertainment yet fewer MVs. The trend seems to be happening across the city.

      Ride-hailing is something else. We can’t know until it’s happening but don’t blame condos. They allow more people to walk, cycle and use transit.

      1. Downtown is tiny vs Metrovan. As such, folks from Surrey, Delta, Coquitlam and especially North & West Vancouver would strongly disagree here that walkability and public transit has improved ie that car dependency is being reduced. North shore is packed with cars and it is getting worse by the years. Once JerichoLands are being built, UBC and UEL Lelem is built out without a UBC subway it will be a mayhem on 4th, Broadway, 16th and SW Marine Drive too.

        China does what it sees fit to throttle car growth in polluted congested cities as no one can vote politicians out. That has its benefits over messy democracies were such policies take years or even decades to implement.

        Where are we with car tolling or congestion fees, as proposed last year or 2 by Metrovan? This idea seems to have disappeared altogether despite the green intentions of the new NDP-Green coalition to not upset Surrey swing voters ? Where are the trains or non-polluting fast e-buses or subways to N Shore, UBC, Langley etc ?

        1. Surrey, Delta, Coquitlam and the North Shore are based on single family residential sprawl. That’s what causes congestion – not condos. You pretty much prove the point. No wonder traffic is getting worse out there. They should learn from Vancouver’s success.

          Downtown Vancouver has an advantage of being the business/shopping/entertainment hub but there’s no reason our regional town centres can’t build off of the same model. Building SkyTrain/subways out to the boonies doesn’t relieve traffic in those suburbs. Mixed use development with much higher densities do. Sprawling our rapid transit out from the central core of Vancouver merely rewards those who choose to live far away. Those people are given a fast commute to downtown, but drive for most everything else because of the sprawl they choose to live in. It’s the driving-for-everything that exacerbates congestion.

          Road pricing would help. I hope it moves forward at some point. Robust regional town centres will help. They finally seem to be taking off, but I hope they get the mixed use mix right. Excellent transit serving those centres from the immediate surroundings would help. They haven’t chosen that model. They abandoned the beginnings of a Surrey focused light rail for a Vancouver focused high speed bypass of Surrey.


        2. Yup, pretty sad when you have to post under multiple names to make your poor arguments seem more credible. Give it up, Beyer.

    3. Condos without parking do not lead to congestion— people won t own a car if it is long walk from a parking spot—- they will just walk or catch a bus instead— It is parking stalls not condo s that lead to congestion

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