You can't not notice the horrid traffic in Chengdu. But it seemed authorities had turned a blind eye to the situation, hoping that the construction of pedestrian overpasses and the opening of the subway later this year would resolve the problem.
Crossing guard in Chengdu. Photo by Dan Sandoval.
In the meantime, traffic is only getting more backed up. And late last month, it was announced that the Chengdu government is drawing up plans to address the situation by placing limits on the number of new license plates it issues.
Not only that, but the public will be involved. A policy hearing is scheduled for April 28. The hearing is meant to take into account input from city residents, representatives of impacted industries, and representatives from people of "all walks of life."
Once the announcement was made, major media outlets encouraged citizens to give their input on the issue. On March 26, the China Daily published this article (in Chinese; we have translated the majority of the text below):
Even after this year's implementation of staggered work times and the construction of the pedestrian overpasses, the situation on the city's overcrowded roads saw barely noticeable improvement: Traffic moved only 5.7 percent faster than before, and day after day, the ever-increasing number of cars on the road quickly ate away at this small improvement. In January of this year, Chengdu added 1389 new cars to its roads and forecasted that within four months the modest improvements in traffic flow would be entirely canceled out by the influx of additional cars.
A survey company forecasts that by 2015, the traffic network within the Second Ring will be gridlocked at rush hour and that throughout the entire day at least 30 percent of the network will be seriously congested.
It is predicted that this year, the number of parking spots required within the city center will be 1.5 million; currently there are 270,000. This is already a pressing problem.
In February of this year, Chengdu made an unprecedented move by removing 66 parking lots in order to improve traffic flow in the city center and take advantage of the full capacity of small and medium-sized roads. But of course this created even more of a parking crunch.
According to the bureau, there are two means of imposing restrictings on car licenses: one way is to assign them without charge; the other is to auction them. Another issue is whether cars already on the road should be subject to the restrictions or only those applying for new license plates.
City officials are now turning to the experience of cities such as Shanghai and Beijing in order to devise a rational plan suitable for Chengdu's particular needs.
In 1986, Shanghai started auctioning off license numbers. "This auctioning system brought about a supply-and-demand problem, and with the neverending clamor for license plates, the prices just continued to rise." In February of this year, successful bidders paid an average of RMB38,620 for their Shanghai-issued license plates—enough to buy a low-end car. Owing to the ever-present supply-and-demand issue, the prices of Shanghai plates just keep going up.
"The no-charge method of issuing license plates prevents the problem of ever-rising prices, but it also makes it easy for scalpers to stockpile plates." When asked whether they prefer the auction-style or no-charge method of licensing, most city residents said the no-charge method. "This kind of system is more fair and won't create an ever-growing burden on car buyers," said city resident Mr. Ding.
In addition, the City of Chengdu can also implement a measure to distinguish between city license plates and suburban plates. This measure would mean that the number of vehicles permitted to enter the city would certainly be restricted. But as to which measures are implemented, we will know only after the hearing.
At the hearing there will be 19 people, among them eight city representatives, four car-owners and four non-car-owners. Eligible persons* who wish to volunteer as city representatives were invited to apply from April 7 to 9 at the Chengdu City People's Government Service Center. The representatives will be selected by random drawing.
*Eligibility included being at least 18 years of age; possessing all legal citizen rights, including a Chengdu residence card or a minimum of three months temporary residence permit, literacy, etc.
Chengdu now ranks third among Chinese cities in terms of car ownership. According to estimates from the transportation authority, the number of motor vehicles in the city currently exceeds 2.4 million, with 850,000 in the central city area. On average, 1,200 new licenses are issued daily; the record is 1,480 licenses in one day.
While the number of vehicles is growing, the speed at which those vehicles can travel in the city is clearly declining. In 2005, average speeds on city roads were 22 kmph; over five years they have decreased by 18 percent to the current average of 18 kmph. Every year speeds become approximately 1 kmph slower. Morning and evening rush hours are particularly impacted with speeds averaging at 14 kmph. It's predicted that if no measures are implemented, by 2013 average road speeds during rush hour will be 8.5 kmph and the city center will face total gridlock.
And with that, the netizens were off, buzzing about it on online forums and off.
A March 27 article in the Chengdu Commercial Daily summarized major reactions and opinions (again, our translation):
"Hurry up and buy a car, they're going to start restricting license plates soon!" These days, you can hear this sentiment expressed everywhere on the streets of Chengdu.
Why? Because the news is Chengdu is drafting a plan to limit the number of cars. Over on the Longmen Township online discussion forum, tons of netizens are voicing their opinions.
Those in Favor
Opinion 1: Raise Licensing Fees
"In some cities in other countries, you have to prove you have a parking space before you can get your license plates. And in some places they deliberately raise the licensing fees so that they cost more than the price of the actual car to prevent people from casually buying cars. Shanghai's method of auctioning off vehicle license numbers should be an example for the whole country," said net user "Latin," who favors limiting the growth of numbers of vehicles on the road and suggests looking to Shanghai and Shenzhen as models. In this way, he says any notion of buying a car in the minds of those who can't actually afford it will be erased.
Opinion 2: Rotating Plate Numbers
This type of restriction should come from the city car management department. Every day only the cars with a certain license plate number should be allowed on the road, and every household should be allowed only one vehicle.
Opinion 3: Improve the Pedestrian Experience
"The streets are full of an unceasing stream of car exhaust, they make the streets dirty and noisy, and seriously impact the health of those who do not have cars. At the same time, the large number of cars makes the roads more dangerous for us, who's going to take care of this mess? The license plates should definitely be restricted and at the same time efforts stepped up to cancel the plates of high-polluting, older vehicles. City resident Zhang Yang said that the growth rate of the number of vehicles needs to be controlled, standards for vehicle emissions need to be raised, vehicles that aren't in compliance with regulations need to be restricted, and vehicles within the First Ring Road, other than public transportation, should be limited during peak traffic times.
Opinion 1: Enable the "poor people's" to buy cars
"Restricting license plates to only new vehicles is unfair to the 'common people' who haven't yet been able to afford a car. For those who don't have a car already because they're unable or for some other reason, when their lifestyle level increases, they'll also have the car fees to pay. Don't they also have the right to enjoy life?" said a senior citizen who was sipping tea at People's Park. Currently members of his household have to transfer buses three times in order to go back to their hometown of Anyue. They've been saving up these years in order to buy a new car and do not endorse the license-plate restriction plans.
"Look, there are a ton of cars in Chengdu, but most of them are inexpensive. The license-plate limits won't have any effect on the wealthy."
Opinion 2: The restriction treats the symptoms but not the cause
"I think that limiting the sales of vehicles although in theory is reasonable, it doesn't solve the underlying problem and cannot be effective over a long period of time. Plus it's not easy to implement. Also, there are a lot of problems: If you impose limits in the city of Chengdu, can't people just go to another place to get their license? At the end of the day you still haven't solved the problem." Some netizens believe that the role of the governmental departments should be more focused on the suburbs, and the many work units that oversee planning and projects should set their sights on development outside the Third Ring. The space within the Second Ring should be reserved for entertainment, leisure, shopping, and other commercial activity.
Opinion 3: Rapid development of public transportation is the way
"There's no doubt that there are too many private cars, but what can we do in face of the problem? Let the government auction off license plates? That's just giving the government even more money." Many netizens seemed to feel that the way to address the fundamental problem was by rapidly expanding the public-transportation system.
Opinion 4: Impact the growth of the car and travel industries
"If the government restricts cars, the auto industry and travel industry will also be impacted (after all, it's much more convenient to drive to the nearby tourist sites than to take a bus). They should implement a one car per household policy. Even if those who have enough money shouldn't be allowed to buy a second car!"
Many netizens offered their thoughts and input, bringing up many plans of action. "Establishing exclusive roads for public transportation vehicles and taxis, ensuring the efficiency, convenience, and speed of the public-transportation system, breaking up the monopoly of the taxi companies and opening the market for taxis, resolving the extreme difficulties faced by city residents wishing to hail a cab," suggested one netizen on the thread.