China has for the first time embraced road congestion fees that are similar to Singapore's Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) as a solution to tackle traffic jams that have worsened even in smaller cities.
In its 2016-2020 public transport workplan released on Monday, the Ministry of Transport urged local governments to study and introduce road congestion fees "at an appropriate time", depending on traffic conditions in their cities.
It also urged traffic-clogged metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai to ease their reliance on policies that curb vehicle purchase and usage, and to beef up public transport instead.
The workplan marks the first mention of congestion fees in government documents - a clear sign of intent in China - despite years of talk and attempts by officials to adopt the policy.
Beijing University of Technology transport analyst Chen Yanyan believes this sends a clear message that the central government places a strong emphasis on tackling traffic congestion, which in turn could help local governments overcome opposition to the policy.
Ways to reduce congestion
Chinese motorists in several major cities have to obtain licence plates through either a lottery or auction system before being allowed on the road.
Several Chinese cities like Beijing and Tianjin use a system based on the last numbers on the licence plates. Each day, two numbers are banned from the streets. Vehicles with non-local plates also face entry restrictions to some parts of the cities during peak traffic hours.
IMPROVING PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The Transport Ministry's 2016-2020 workplan has urged cities like Beijing and Shanghai to use a mix of tools to ease traffic jams, including technology and beefing up public transport.
The workplan sets several targets on this front. For instance, cities with over five million residents should achieve "100 per cent bus coverage", with bus stops located every 500m in urban areas.
A futuristic "straddling bus" that can carry up to 1,400 passengers and allow cars to pass underneath is being touted as a possible solution. A life-sized model is being built and could be tested later this year.
ROAD CONGESTION FEES
Several Chinese cities have studied road congestion fees in Singapore and London since as early as 2002.
Beijing is the latest to join the list, with a preliminary policy framework already drafted, though no timeline has been given on when it will be introduced.
"The decision to implement congestion fees still lies with the local governments. But we can expect the central government to provide them with more resources and support in this direction," she told The Straits Times.
Traffic jams have been a growing scourge across China after rapid economic development over the past decades led to rising wealth and, in turn, higher car ownership.
The number of private vehicles soared from 58 million in 2011 to 124 million last year, making China the world's largest auto market.
As a result, road speeds have slowed and air pollution has worsened, triggering complaints from the middle class whose happiness determines the level of stability craved by the Communist Party.
The problem has spread to second-tier cities. A report this month by China's car-sharing firm Didi Kuaidi ranked northern Shijiazhuang, south-western Chongqing and north-western Xi'an as the cities with the worst traffic jams, ahead of capital Beijing.
Currently, curbs on vehicle purchase and usage are the key ways adopted by several Chinese cities to tackle traffic jams. Beijing, for instance, uses a lottery system in issuing new licence plates and also a policy in which the last digit on the plate decides usage on certain days of the week.
Singapore's ERP system and similar policies in cities like London have often been cited as remedies since 2002. Several cities like southern Shenzhen have sent officials on study trips to Singapore and later drafted implementation blueprints. But such moves have repeatedly run into roadblocks due to public resistance, which has resurfaced in recent days over the new workplan.
Critics say the policy will not improve traffic-clogged roads as motorists will continue to choose driving over public transport until buses and subways are improved.
An editorial from the Beijing News daily yesterday also said the effects of congestion fees might wear off on motorists after some time, as it urged the authorities to turn to the Internet to disseminate traffic information to minimise jams.
Hopes are now pinned on Beijing to lead the way in introducing the country's first congestion charge. A preliminary policy framework has been drafted, according to media reports in late May, though no timeline was given. But Beijing Jiaotong University's transport analyst Zhao Jian believes it would be tough to implement congestion charges in the capital city as its traffic jams are a widespread problem within the 5th Ring Road network that spans a 667 sq km area.
"Besides improving public transport, it would be more effective to raise car ownership costs through higher taxes," Dr Zhao told The Straits Times.