Having been in Beijing for the whole of the very successful 29th Olympiad in August, and then attended 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, l was struck by the possibility of introducing congestion charging to Beijing itself.
Such measures increasingly need to be considered in response to the necessity both of reducing congestion and also of improving air quality in Beijing, particularly after the successful short-term measures undertaken during the Olympics have come to an end.
Certainly the clear blue skies in Beijing at the end of the Olympics were impressive, particularly after the concerns expressed by some about the possible adverse effects of air pollution on the performance of top athletes.
The latter of course did not materialize, as we saw 43 world records and more than 120 Olympic records shattered in the course of the Games. Credit here should go to the initiatives taken by the city authorities to improve the air quality in Beijing over the period of the Olympics, which was essentially achieved by providing better and cheaper public transport and by implementing the odd-even license plate restriction that allowed the city's 3.3 million private car owners to drive only on alternate days.
The success of the latter scheme interestingly led to calls for its retention after the end of the Olympics and the authorities have announced that it will be reintroduced on a temporary basis whenever pollution rises to high levels.
In the case of public transport Zhou Zhengyu, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Committee of Communications during the Olympics, announced that the reduced ticket prices brought in for the duration of the Games would be extended for some considerable time afterward.
Remember that in Beijing there was a cut in the standard price of a bus ticket by 60 percent for regular passengers and 80 percent for students. And last October, the price of a single journey subway ticket was slashed by 30 percent to 2 yuan.
So, not surprisingly, as a result of the cheaper fares and traffic control measures introduced for the Olympics, the proportion of Beijing residents using public transport on a daily basis rose from 35 percent to 45 percent.
The national government initiative since the beginning of September to raise taxes on big cars and reduce them on smaller ones, in order to save energy and cut pollution, will also contribute to improving the quality of life in Beijing.
Owners of cars with engines above 4 liters capacity will have to pay 40 percent tax, double the existing rate. The tax for cars between 3 and 4 liters will rise from 15 to 25 percent, while those below 1 liter capacity will be reduced from 3 to 1 per cent.
Furthermore, the tax move is a good first step for the country toward an energy-efficient and environment-friendly economy, while helping to save fuel and thus increase energy security.
Yet Beijing will still be home to about 3.3 million cars, and the 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 the lines already implemented by the authorities, 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 introduction of such a scheme in London in 2002 by the then Mayor Ken Livingstone has reduced the number of vehicles entering central London by 70,000 a day. This has produced real benefits for the city, not only by cutting key traffic pollutants but also by improving public transport capacity and performance, and reducing road traffic casualties.
The geography of Beijing, with its various ring roads, would lend itself very easily to congestion charging. A congestion charge zone could be introduced within either Ring Road 2 or 3 at the beginning and then be extended outward depending on the success of the scheme and public demand for it.
As in London, in order to win public support, the funds raised from the congestion charge would have to be seen to be reinvested into public transport, and 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.
So l look forward to one day visiting Beijing again and seeing road congestion charging, or at least another variant of road pricing, being implemented to improve the quality of life for Beijingers. This should be the icing on the cake, on top of the outstanding investment already undertaken by the authorities, and would be consistent with the Chinese government's focus on people-centered and scientific methods of development.
The author is deputy chair of Environment Committee, London Assembly
(China Daily 10/23/2008 page10)