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Bad traffic cuts into Beijing's bottom line
( 2003-11-22 09:05) (China Daily)

Will Beijing, a city of 14 million residents, grow into a crammed metropolis? Or will it become a model of smart traffic planning?

The answer matters tremendously as the city invests heavily to remake itself in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.

A recent survey by the World Bank on Chinese cities' investment climate gave Beijing only an above-average grade while Shanghai and Guangzhou had the best marks.

Apart from inadequate labour market flexibility, Beijing's traffic jams put the city at a conspicuous disadvantage when vying for investors.

The survey result, of course, makes the municipal government of Beijing uncomfortable. The city is presently engaged in a breathtaking struggle with several domestic cities to become the country's international financial centre.

It is unexpected that the growing number of vehicles on roads has changed so fast from a symbol of prosperity to being viewed as an anchor on Beijing's economic progress.

However, the mediocre report card should not be deemed merely as a blow in its bid to become a world-class metropolis. Rather, it is a warning -- highlighting the need to address traffic problems as a barrier to its sustainable development.

Beijing has taken the lead, among other Chinese cities, in stepping into the era of automobiles.

The number of registered motor vehicles in the capital surpassed the 2 million mark early this year, doubling in about six years.

Along with the lightning speed at which the volume of cars is growing, have come the inevitable traffic snarls and public complaints.

Last year, Beijing recorded 16,789 traffic jams. Traffic management officials complained that "rush hour'' now covers 11 hours of each day.

Given what is at stake, the Beijing municipal government cannot afford to be idle.

The recently initiated "100-day campaign against traffic congestion in Beijing'' shows the problem is now clearly visible to the local authorities.

Earlier this month, the municipal government announced it will spend about 35 billion yuan (US$4.2 billion) next year on road construction and traffic planing.

And last month, it also promised to invest as much as 180 billion yuan (US$21.7 billion) before 2008 on improving the traffic situation.

Besides those ambitious plans to increase roads, the local authorities are also drafting new measures to tackle traffic congestions.

A detailed plan will be unveiled by the end of the year and early reports show the municipal government will focus on establishing a comprehensive, modern public transport network featuring fast-speed ground transport and rail options, as well as convenient regular ground passenger traffic.

Nevertheless, traffic jams will not disappear with more roads.

The development of public transport is essential, but not enough if measures to control cars are neglected.

Because of the layout of Beijing with concentric ring roads wrapping around its downtown core, smart traffic planning is a must in the central part of the city.

The municipal government's attempts to improve administration matters and raise citizens' awareness in relation to modern transport methods will definitely help ease traffic congestion.

Yet, by stopping short of imposing some clear-cut limits on use of private cars in choked areas, Beijing still risks failure in overcoming its huge challenge.

A licence tax for private cars and a "congestion charge'' applied to motorists driving into the downtown area are among considerations of most big Chinese cities facing traffic problems. Beijing is no exception.

But since such measures would raise the cost of driving and thus put a dent in consumers' enthusiasm for buying cars, strong opposition from the automobile industry and individuals has been increasing since the suggestion was made public in September.

The ever growing importance of the booming automobile industry to the national economy, as well as to local governments' fiscal revenues, will naturally compel policy-makers to think twice before adopting the measures.

Moreover, people's reluctance to pay more for driving cars is also a cause for concern.

Nonetheless, when drawing its transport blueprint, local government should not try to sell the industry's interest. Instead, it is policy-makers have a responsibility to weigh up all interests carefully from a long-term perspective.

A cold fact that everyone must face now is that, as the World Bank survey shows, Beijing's investment climate has been affected by its road congestion.

As the 2008 Olympic host city, it is high time for Beijing to pay special attention to the problem.

To rein in runaway inflation, one should better boost supply while quenching soaring demand.

Similarly, in reducing traffic jams, the government should accelerate road construction while limiting the number of cars taking to the roads.

A blanket licence tax can collect a considerable sum for the municipal government's road construction and maintenance budget. But the suggestion is ill advised for it has nothing to do with facilitating smart traffic planning.

The growth in the number of private cars is inevitable as people get wealthier.

Policy-makers can guide traffic volume by introducing a "congestion charge,'' which will compel drivers to avoid clogged roads and raise the efficiency of the whole transport network.

The supply of roads in the downtown area is definite, only a flexible fee can reduce the number of vehicles heading into downtown Beijing.

To impose such a selective charge would be more difficult than introducing a blanket licence tax, but it is the basis of modern urban transportation.

In a sense, smart traffic planning serves as a litmus test of the municipal government's administrative dexterity -- something expected of an international financial centre.

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