As city planners we mourn what has been sacrificed for the sake of the automobile. We’ve seen the car takeover unfold systematically over the last century in the USA: the streetcar lines were ripped out, the highways were expanded, and a car for every household (and then for every member of every household) became the norm. We now know the results of this takeover – an unhealthy population, placeless suburban arterials, loss of community, environmental destruction, and carnage.
Condense that century of development into the last 30 years and you have China’s car takeover. In 1990, there were only 5.5 million cars, trucks and buses on the road. By 2013 there were 240 million, almost as much as the U.S. The impact is staggering and includes the usual suspects in addition to novel new problems like the 11 day traffic jam. The average speed on Beijing’s ring roads is 9 MPH, a leisurely bicycling pace.
It is evident all over Beijing that there are too many cars, not enough space. It’s not that I’m not accustomed to megacity traffic. I lived in Tokyo for a year, but the actions of cars rarely impacted me as a pedestrian and cyclist. I was more impacted in Portland, but could generally avoid car aggressions by avoiding rush hour. But in Beijing it’s as if the sky opened up and dropped a million cars on the city all at once, so there’s just no easy way to manage them at the moment. That is essentially what happened, and there are growing pains from this abrupt transition.
I was recently afforded the opportunity to help CAUPD’s Department of International Cooperation plan a tour for a visiting delegation of German architects and planners. In a city that’s constantly turning over with new development, the director wanted to show them an old example of residential planning.
We took them on a tour of the Baiwanzhuang residential area, one of the first areas to be built in the newly formed People’s Republic of China in the 1950s. It housed government officials and was modeled on the Soviet superblock. The apartment buildings were arranged around a central common area where neighbors could meet and children could play. Schools, shops, and markets were all contained within the area so residents could meet their daily needs without leaving the neighborhood. It was essentially the 20-minute neighborhood, realized. Yet there’s one thing that wasn’t planned for: the future influx of cars.
The streets are narrow and the sidewalks are wide, so where better to park your car than on the sidewalk. Almost every nook and cranny of Baiwanzhuang is occupied by a parked car. The gardening space in front of the buildings is more often being used as a carport. The common areas that remain are being used as parking lots, so oddly enough there aren’t many children playing or neighbors mingling in-between parked cars. With parked cars lining both sides of the street it is barely wide enough for a single car to pass, so we witnessed lots of stopping, reversing, honking, and speeding to get through when there was a clear shot without oncoming traffic.
Baiwanzhuang is just a microcosm of greater Beijing. There are cars parked on every sidewalk. This behavior has been pointed out by multiple cohorts of interns, because we’re from Portland, and this kind of aggression would not stand, man. But it’s perfectly acceptable behavior here and would appear to be the only option at times. These drivers are not scofflaws, they’re parking in a city that didn’t need many parking lots until quite recently.
Of course scofflaws do exist. No one yields to pedestrians in a crosswalk. The historic hutongs that remain are ideal pedestrian corridors, but it never fails that a car tries to force its way down them, even when no car signs are clearly posted. They clog the roadways, intrude on spaces they were not meant to go, and aren’t even that convenient in a city with world-class public transit.
Even still, everyone wants one, and why not? Then you could be that honking menace. Beijing began a lottery system in 2011 for new vehicle registrations in an attempt to slow the car takeover. This policy alone does nothing about the existing cars on the road, but it does curtail the breakneck speed that new ones are being added. Beijing was the first city to administer new registrations by a random lottery; Shanghai and other cities use an auction system that raises revenue, but inherently favors the wealthy. The lottery is seen as a fairer way to go about distributing a limited resource.
The lottery is held every month but chances of winning are low. My colleague Nanying has been playing for over a year, but she’s still riding the subway. Currently 1 person out of every 200 will win a registration, and the odds have been steadily dropping since 2011 as more and more people enter the pool.
Of course there are ways to game the system, but by most measures it appears to be successful. According to this study the number of new cars on Beijing’s roads has dropped dramatically, and congestion has improved significantly thanks to this measure combined with other policies. A smarter policy still is the creation of a separate lottery for electric vehicles. When the electric car lottery started last year there were not enough applicants to fill the pool, so it was suspended and everyone who wanted a registration for an electric vehicle got one. People were hesitant at first because the city lacks the charging station infrastructure, but now that it’s going in more people are willing to purchase an electric vehicle. The lottery is back on, and the odds are much, much better if you’re going to buy an electric vehicle with that new registration, so people are jumping on board. Smart move!
It’s not a sustainable solution to the car takeover – that will likely require a fleet of on-demand self-driving electric cars that don’t honk or drive on the sidewalk – but it’s certainly a good start for a city drowning in automobiles. I wish more cities would acknowledge the inevitable decline of the private car and act accordingly. Beijing is certainly not the only place where it is obvious that there are too many cars for the existing space (thinking of you, parking lot that is I-5). Beijing is leading the charge on this one and more cities need to follow suit.