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.
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.
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.