Beijing: Traffic is Terrible in September, Congestion Charges, and a 1000 Vehicle Strong Taxi EV Fleet Coming Soon

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September is a busy month in the Chinese social calendar, September 2nd marks the first day of the school term – for the whole country – which means gridlock in just about every city as the usual rush hour is compounded by hundreds of thousands of parents that wish to take their kids to school on the first day before letting them ride the school bus on the second day. The first school day is technically September 1st where students have to turn up and receive books, the first real day falls on the 2nd and this year traffic was as bad as ever, even worse in Beijing.

The China Daily gives a good run down of what to expect:

Road congestion is expected reach serious levels on nine days this month, with the traffic congestion index expected to reach above 8.5. The index measures congestion on a scale of 0 (no congestion) to 10 (heavily congested).

The days surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival and the National Day holiday, Sept 17, Sept 18, Sept 22 and Sept 29, are expected to hit above 9.0, the statement said.

Mid-Autumn Day, which falls on Sept 19 this year, has become a popular holiday for people to send gifts, so many cars from outside Beijing are expected to come to the capital.

Last year, on Sept 25, five days before the National Day holiday, the city witnessed a peak road congestion index of 9.8 during late afternoon.

According to the commission’s latest plan to deal with heavy traffic this month, government departments have been told not to hold large meetings or activities.

Beijing’s traffic issues are the stuff of legends with many a visitor to the capital coming back and telling their tales of woe. Shanghai residents visit the capital and return to Shanghai with a mark of respect for their own gridlocked roads which come with a sense of order and hope, unlike Beijing’s roads where everyone seems to have given up.

Beijing residents don’t seem to be doing much to alleviate the problem:

Zhang Mingming, 33, who works in the Financial Street area, said that a flexible working schedule would not resolve road congestion because in some areas, because traffic has been a long standing problem.

“Every day I drive my car to work and pass the West Railway Station area, I get caught for at least a half an hour,”Zhang said.

The number of cars on the road is increasing, and the current road system cannot cope with so many vehicles, she said.

Beijing is currently mulling the introduction of a London style congestion charge to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads according to the Global Times:

Officials in the Chinese capital on Monday said they are mulling over a new program that charges drivers extra congestion fees, which is among a package of measures to curb vehicle emissions.

While the Beijing Municipal Government hopes the program could reduce the number of cars on the road, opponents argue that imposing the charge could be too costly.

“This program is extremely complicated. The facilities and resources put into the program to monitor the entire city may prove to be less effective than expected and would probably aggravate congestion,” Niu Fengrui, director of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

Shao Chunfu, professor of urban transportation research at Beijing Jiaotong University, agreed by saying that the core reason behind Beijing’s congestion and its air pollution is that the city has been given too many functions by simultaneously being the country’s political, cultural and academic centers.

“Its population also keeps growing, putting more pressure on the public system,” Shao added.

The city has vowed to cover downtown areas with a network of at least 480 kilometers of bus lanes and introduce a public bicycle rental system to ensure public transportation is used for 60 percent of trips made by residents.

The emissions curbing package, part of an action plan by the Beijing government highlighting its increasing efforts to clean its heavily polluted air, has pledged to reduce the density of PM2.5, the airborne particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter that can pose health risks, by at least 25 percent by 2017.

According to the package, from 2014 the government will also restrict the annual number of new cars hitting the road, and by 2017, the number of vehicles will be under 6 million.

Beijing currently has circa 5 million vehicles on its roads and has limited new car sales to just 240,000 vehicles per year via a lottery system that assigns 20,000 license plates each month. There is talk of letting EV buyers avoid the lottery system but a final decision has not yet been made. The GB Times is reporting that Beijing is planning to put a 1000 strong fleet of EV taxis on to Beijing’s roads by the end of this year, Beijing once declared that the city would become a paradise for EV’s partly thanks to its local manufacturer Beijing Auto planning to produce an electric variant of the Saab 93 and 95.

Beijing has been running a pilot project of EV taxis in the far flung suburb of Changping District which is basically saying New York State is the same as New York City, the fleet of 50 Foton EV-MPV’s was apparently well received and will now be boosted to a 1000 vehicles which will work all over the city.

The new taxis will be privately owned, but their introduction is encouraged, and sponsored, by the government. Each taxi can receive a subsidy of around 3,000 yuan per month from the government; a strong incentive for their use.

This is not the first governmental attempt to introduce more environmentally friendly forms of transport. Electric powered buses have been in use for some time, and more recently some running on compressed natural gas have also entered service. This was tried with taxis as well, with compressed natural gas taxis being introduced during the Olympics, but they have failed to enter wider service.

EV vehicles are obviously expensive when compared to a traditional taxi cab (the BYD E6 taxi is around 240,000RMB, a Hyundai Sonata is around 120-150,000RMB) but with a subsidy of 3000RMB per month operators are going to have a substantial incencentive to drop the gas and pick up the charging cable. The only downside is that Beijing’s traffic is so bad and with such distinctive seasons it seems the EV’s will be sitting with the AC on all summer and the heater on all winter. We hope that the downtown areas can have greater access to charging infrastructure close to taxi driver hangouts.

About the author  ⁄ Ash

Ash came to China at 18 and never looked back, a decade later he is still here. After a 4 year stint in a Chinese University where he gained a double BA in Chinese and International Trade he worked for a myriad of different companies in the Chinese Auto industry before heading back to school to get an MBA with a focus in marketing.


  • ash
    September 3, 2013

    I usually set off for work at 7am, but this year the school rush got me. I was still outside my apartment in gridlock traffic at 7:30am. It took 30 minutes to travel less than a kilometer.

  • dragin
    September 4, 2013

    Viewing this typical Chinese intersection, “flow” comes to mind. Has the Beijing government’s highway engineering department given any thought to hiring foreign experts from Tokyo, New York, Rome, and London? Many of the department’s current administrators may not even have driver’s licenses……:-o

  • joninchina
    September 4, 2013

    Good point dragin………..but wait, there’s more! :D I also see the “national” standard (not really law but deeply ingrained life patterns in society) of work starting at 8:30 – 9am (schools usually start at 8:00am), lunch at 12:00 noon, and the work day done at 5:30-6pm with schools also ending at 5:30-6pm as well). Imagine the huge masses of people (students of all ages as well as the daily workforce) commuting from home to school/work in every city across the country…………almost unimaginable. NOW throw in the questionable city planning when it comes to school entrances being close to major intersections (imagine a primary school with parents waiting in their cars for their children, parking illegally in front of the school and blocking a lane of a major road at commute time) – now it becomes a true nightmare. What I just described is reality, and I see it all the time………’s just down the street from the entrance of my arts college! We’re lucky, most of our students live in dorms………..and teachers usually have evening rehearsals, so not a huge problem for us during the commute. It’s easy to blame city planning, but the truth is 15-20 years ago, there was NO commute problem, because almost no one owned cars. Is there a answer? Of course – it all depends on the government. In Nanning, I am seeing a VAST increase in the presence of traffic police at all major intersections, and many minor ones as well during commute times (at huge intersections all day long)……and it’s making a difference in FLOW (thanks dragin) because the police are forcing the drivers to obey the laws! :) Amazing what happens when drivers follow the law (even if they’re forced to) – all of a sudden traffic doesn’t seem quite so horrible anymore. My guess on the Beijing picture? No police presence!

  • ash
    September 4, 2013

    Wow. Billy Mays in the comment box. That’s a first.

  • dragin
    September 5, 2013

    Yeah, got to give him credit Ash….
    Yes JIC, you are right. There are probably many circumstances that are unique to China, and the rule of law has yet to be fully inculcated in the masses. But having driven for many years, I have seen the evolution of smooth flow at certain busy intersections that I have encountered in the West. The improvements that I have witnessed over time tell me that there really is a science, or art, if you will, to keeping the flow in progress. I think the California highway engineers are the most sophisticated. You may have to be patient and wait a bit longer at a light, but on the upside the “snarled” intersections seem fewer than elsewhere and so everything continues to move along, albeit slowly, during rush hour. And so again I say, hire some outsiders who will help native folks think outside the box.
    Oh, and the money for the necessary (sophisticated traffic light control technology) is sitting there in the Chinese big city coffers. So no excuse for its absence.

  • joninchina
    September 5, 2013

    I assume you live in California, dragin? I was born and raised in Silicon Valley, and lived in the Los Angeles area (inland empire) for about 12 years before I came to China…….I know very well what you’re talking about, having seen the state grow so much in population during those years. You are right – california’s intersections (at least in the major metro areas) are really amazing. Timed lights for miles at a stretch, different timing patterns for traffic lights based on time of day (longer green lights during commute times), even sensors in traffic lights now – if a intersection is empty and a car approaches, the lights will “see” the car and change the traffic lights for the waiting car (in other words, not requiring a driver to sit through a complete timed light changing sequence while waiting for a green light). It’s not all that expensive nowadays either – a lot of it can be controlled from a central control center if necessary, and onsite it’s just a software upgrade (either direct serial connection or wireless via WiFi). Could this technology help China? ABSOLUTELY – but it will be a lot more effective once most drivers here are more “law abiding”, so to speak. We still have hordes of drivers that cut into left turn lanes (often blocking cars that were properly waiting IN the left turn lane), make u-turns from the far right lane (or even from the right side curb, blocking both directions of traffic in the the process), drive at 10 miles an hour down a crowded road with a line of cars behind them honking………as they talk on their cel phone while they are looking for a business or restaurant – COMPLETELY ignorant of the perturbed drivers behind them, etc……my point? Traffic light technology is a great tool……….and can help things greatly…………but unfortunately not too effective against the examples I just mentioned. Some flow issues here are directly attributed to lawless driving – and a lot of that could be fixed if the police extend their focus onto the streets and not just the intersections. Start giving drivers tickets for MOVING VIOLATIONS – don’t rely on JUST traffic cameras. Get traffic police to start pulling drivers over and give them a damn ticket on the spot – and let word of mouth do the rest. It works in most other parts of the world – just the possibility of being pulled over if a cop sees you doing something wrong is usually enough to compel most people to drive WITHIN the law! :)

  • bob
    September 6, 2013

    Chinese traffic is terrible due to a lack of consideration between drivers. There is no “you first”" courtesy in China, its all “FUCK YOU, IM COMING!”"

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