Chinese cities adopt car-unfriendly rules

On August 2012, the municipal government of Guangzhou decided to restrict car registrations by means of a license plate lottery in order to reduce traffic jams and improve air quality. Although China has become the world’s largest car market, private cars no longer seem to be welcome in Chinese cities. By banishing cars from their centres, Chinese cities are following a global trend. Car-less cities may, in fact, be the key to sustainable urban development.

Guangzhou is not the first city in China to implement a license plate lottery. Other Chinese cities have endorsed similar policies: Beijing has held car license lotteries since 2011, followed by Guiyang, a second tier city, which has implemented the same kind of policy. Xian, a large inland city, is considering following suit.  Shanghai was the first city to experience restrictive policies concerning vehicles, including license plate auctions, as early as 1994. Because of increasing traffic jams and poor air quality, more and more Chinese cities are trying to control the car market. Guangzhou’s decision was widely reported by newspapers, as the decision may affect China’s car industry. As KeithBradsher pointed out in his article published on September 4th in the New York Times, Guangzhou provides a good illustration of the transformation Chinese cities are undergoing.  The home city to major car manufacturers (Bradsher rightfully compares Guangzhou to Detroit), this Chinese municipality has risked harming its own industry in order to improve its environment. This decision shows that Chinese cities have reached the next level of urbanisation; they are showing concern for the quality of life of their inhabitants, and as a consequence, they are transforming their transportation systems.

Since the late 70’s and the Open Door policy, a middle-class has emerged in China, which has gradually given up bicycles and switched to motorcycles, then private cars.  City planners took account of this evolution in the construction of new infrastructures, responding to the increasing number of private car users. Because of urban sprawl and the development of car ownership, new ring roads and freeways have been built around major Chinese cities. In less than twenty years, the suburbs of cities like Shanghai or Beijing have adopted the US car-urbanism model.   Furthermore, car ownership has become a social status for urban dwellers, as illustrated by the success of German top-end car makers in China.

Autolib, Paris’ car sharing system

However, if we look at the most global cities worldwide, we notice that most of them are not car-friendly, and car ownership is not the rule. For example, in car-loving America, the majority of New Yorkers do not own a car. Similarly, not all urban dwellers in Tokyo or London have a car.  There may be several reasons for this. Firstly, thanks to efficient transit systems, using the subway or light rail line is more convenient, cheaper and less time consuming than driving a car. Because of high real estate prices in these cities, car parks are few and parking spaces are expensive to buy or rent. Thirdly, foreign cities across the globe have a long experience of the issues that Chinese cities are now facing, namely traffic congestion and air pollution, and they have already implemented restrictive car policies.  In Asia, in 1975, Singapore was the first city to impose a congestion charge,in addition to high import taxes on cars. In Europe, cities like London and Stockholm have a congestion charge zone to reduce the number of cars in their city centres.  By implementing car lotteries, Chinese cities are simply following this trend… and thus becoming global.As a result, we need to rethink relations between cars and city dwellers. The model of individual car ownership may be confronted by other kinds of ownership.  More and more cities have launched car-sharing systems such as GoCar in Ireland, or Autolib in Paris. As urban drivers do not necessarily need cars on a daily basis, but do need them when driving out of the city for week-ends or vacations, new car renting services will undoubtedly be offered to Chinese urban drivers. With massive investments in cheap and convenient mass transportation systems, the need for private car ownership will decrease. But this does not mean that private cars will disappear from Chinese roads, as most drivers will not be city dwellers, but commuters from distant suburbs,not reached by public transportation, and people living in small and medium-size  cities, where no other options are offered.

However, to achieve the goal of making Chinese cities less congested, restrictive measures for cars should not make car-ownership a “prize” that one can win at lottery. Cars should not be attached to the notion of social status either.  In an era of hyper-consumerism, one of the key factors for Chinese cities’ sustainability will be to make car ownership unattractive, and thus undesirable.

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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