Beijing Traffic Management

Someone (Churchill) once said that the United States of America can always be counted on to do the right thing after it’s exhausted all the alternatives. And sometimes that’s how I feel about China’s ambitious-but-not-working efforts to control pollution while industrializing, admirably recounted by Andrew Jacobs. As just one example, consider my hobbyhorse of traffic planning:

In Beijing, driving restrictions that removed a fifth of private cars from roads each weekday have been offset by 250,000 new cars that hit the city streets in the first four months of 2010.

The policy here is that on any given weekday, there are two digits such that cars whose license plates end in those numbers aren’t allowed on the road. So you can see that the Beijing authorities, unlike those in most American cities, aren’t afraid to tackle the “too much driving” issue. But rather than tackle it in a way that would (a) work and (b) be economically optimal — congestion pricing to fund better bus service — they’ve opted for a goofy rationing system that’s encouraging households to stockpile multiple automobiles in order to evade road restrictions.

The upshot, pollution aside, is that Beijing is already an incredibly congested city even though it’s likely to grow in the future (it’s big, but much smaller than Tokyo, New York, Mumbai, Jakarta, Sao Paulo, or Moscow) and a greater share of the population will be able to afford cars. The Chinese are doing a lot of inspiring things, but an awful lot of their approach to urban planning — tons of new developments seem to be built around a very misguided superblock model — has terrifying implications for the future.