Beijing Diary

Car limits: Why Delhi is no Beijing

China’s capital introduced an automated surveillance network, putting systems in place prior to imposing restrictions.

 |  Beijing Diary  |  3-minute read |   05-12-2015
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If Beijing can do it, so can we. At least, that's what appears to be the thinking behind the Delhi government's move to introduce restrictions limiting vehicles with odd and even number licence plates to ply on alternate days.

It is true that China’s capital has had in place a system to limit cars since 2008.

Yet Beijing’s example is different from Delhi's in at least two important ways: the Chinese capital built an extensive subway and public bus network in a three-year building spree prior to imposing restrictions - the subway will soon cross 600 km and double the length of Delhi’s metro system - and also installed a sophisticated automatic surveillance system using cameras to implement the rules, rather than leave the task to traffic police.

Beijing’s current system is, in fact, less harsh than Delhi’s: rather than odd-even limits that will prevent car owners from taking out their vehicles every other day, in Beijing, cars are limited only one day every week, during which commuters rely on either car-pools or take the subway.

Under the current limits, which rotates numbers every 13 weeks, tail plate numbers ending 4 and 9 are banned on Mondays, 5 and 0 on Tuesdays, 1 and 6 on Wednesdays, 2 and 7 on Thursdays, and 3 and 8 on Fridays. There are no limits on the weekend.

Congestion problem

The Beijing car limit was first imposed in 2008, when the city hosted the Olympics. The move followed a surge in vehicle purchases from China’s booming middle class, with cars increasing from 2.6 million in 2005 to close to 5 million by 2010.

Starting in 2005, Beijing moved to rapidly expand its subway system, installing 228 km of track and imposing a flat rate of 2 Yuan (Rs 20), regardless of distance, to encourage public transport and offer commuters a viable alternative on days they cannot drive their cars.

Enforcement

Perhaps, most importantly, Beijing also put in place a sophisticated system of enforcement that does not rely on the traffic police. A network of surveillance cameras monitor traffic and flags violators, who are immediately sent a 200 Yuan (Rs. 2000) fine to their registered accounts with the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.

Moreover, if a camera spots a violator even several times on the same day, a fine is applied for every sighting. After a certain number of violations, drivers will have their licence suspended and will have to retake a driving test after a six-month period. The system is entirely automated, minimising room for either corruption or evasion, and the fines are high enough to ensure the rules are followed.

Mixed results

Yet, even this efficient system of traffic limits hasn't been entirely successful. Studies have shown that wealthy residents have moved to buy a second car, and the number of vehicles continued to rise every year. While traffic congestion would certainly be worse without the limits, an 11-day traffic jam in 2010 underlined that stricter measures were necessary. This prompted the introduction of a lottery system in 2011 to limit the number of new cars.

Today, the Beijing traffic authority only issues 17,600 vehicle registrations through a lottery system every month, prompting some Beijingers to wait for months before being able to drive cars. Other Chinese cities such as Shanghai have a similar system to limit the number of vehicles, using auctions that have become so competitive that on occasion, registrations cost even more than the cars they adorn.

Writer

Ananth Krishnan Ananth Krishnan @ananthkrishnan

The writer is China correspondent for India Today.

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