Today we get caught in hyper congestion, but not in a bit of surprise, for we knew it was coming long ago.
Back in 1995, right after the Chinese government announced a new policy to develop the auto industry as one of the national pillar industries and to promote domestic market for household cars, the World Bank anticipated that traffic congestion would soon become a mega-city woe.
With increasing household incomes and declining purchase prices of private cars, more and more households could afford to buy one. Private cars also become more attractive when cities grow bigger and average commuting distance longer. But urban land is limited, so is the space devoted for roads.
Based on international experience, the World Bank recommended a wide range of prescriptions for Chinese cities to avoid traffic congestion getting out of control.
Some are supply-side measures to better manage road space for buses and bicycles and to build necessary high-capacity roads. Others are demand-side measures including non-pricing controls on vehicle ownership and use (such as restriction on the days of use), and pricing controls such as fuel taxes and congestion pricing. All these measures have successfully been adopted in other more advanced countries and cities, and are now the main topics of daily debate in Beijing.
The World Bank warned the Chinese mega-cities that no major cities around the world had built out of congestion, and further suggested cities introduce demand-side measures early, before the urban car-owning group locked in a lifestyle of free mobility.
But a city heading toward hyper congestion is often like a patient not wanting to take the tough dose of medicine until the illness becomes too serious. It is politically difficult to do the right things before the problem is felt.
After all, cities always have a number of priorities to meet; so why bother to control traffic when it is still moving? This is exactly the same mistake many developing cities have made.