Car-buying limits spark national debate in China

Major Chinese cities are restricting the numbers of new cars on the road in an attempt to tackle the twin urban headaches of pollution and congestion – but are they doing any good? 

Beijing (dpa) – Hordes of people rushed to buy cars late last month in the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen, after officials gave the public a 15-minute warning before setting new limits on the number of licence plates they would issue.

Some paid thousands of dollars extra to car dealers taking advantage of panicked buyers, while those who heeded rumours about the impending curbs purchased cars earlier in the month: 42,000 new registrations were recorded from December 1 to December 20, according to official figures.

From December 29, the government would only issue 100,000 licence plates a year via auctions and lotteries to residents living in the sprawling city of over 7 million.

Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, is the eighth city in China to restrict vehicle registration, joining Beijing – which introduced a cap in 2011 – Shanghai, Hangzhou, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Guiyang and Shijiazhuang.

Additional traffic control methods adopted by most cities include licence allocation through lotteries and restrictions on non-local cars from driving into the city at certain times.

Alternating restrictions are sometimes applied to certain licence plate numbers, such as being barred from driving in the daytime or being able to drive only on either even-numbered or odd-numbered dates.

The pandemonium and outrage felt by many citizens in Shenzhen sparked a nationwide debate over the effectiveness of such restrictions, as well as their legal basis.

There are over 160 million registered private cars in China, and in notoriously smoggy cities such as Beijing, emissions from vehicles make up over a quarter of locally emitted pollutants, according to official estimates.

The licence caps are aimed at reducing vehicle emissions and congestion, according to state media.

But, as carmakers welcomed record sales last year in the world’s largest car market, experts say the policy has not made a significant impact so far.

Yearly passenger car sales in China have jumped to nearly 20 million units from 2 million cars a year a decade earlier. Sales in 2014 increased by 9.9 per cent to 19.7 million compared to sales in 2013.

As the purchasing power of China’s middle class continues to grow and the country rapidly urbanizes, the volume of new drivers has overwhelmed authorities’ efforts to control mushrooming traffic volumes.

“Car restrictions stimulate sales and have a negative impact on the pollution and congestion,” said Cui Dongshu, deputy secretary of the Joint Advisory Committee of China Passenger Car Market (JACCPCM).

“When car restrictions are applied to one city, it is interesting to see that more cars are being sold in that city,” Cui told dpa.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, where licence restrictions were introduced in July 2012, car sales actually increased to 1.7 million in 2013, a jump of 22 per cent from 2012 sales figures, according to the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences.

A maximum of 120,000 new car registrations should be issued each year in the city, according to the July 2012 restrictions.

Foreign carmakers say their sales receive a boost in Chinese cities before licence restrictions come into force, while local, lower-end carmakers are more likely to see a drop in sales after the restrictions come into force.

A spokesman for German carmaker BMW said the company has been successful in adapting to the impact of licence registration restrictions with “countermeasures” such as promoting part-exchange services and expanding into smaller cities.

“From our past experiences this change will have a reaction to the market by limiting purchases for the initial stage, however in the long run the luxury segment seem to be least affected as licences become cherished and is more of a luxury, customers tend to be more selective and are willing to upgrade their purchase and trade-in,” the BMW spokesman said.

Consumers are adapting as well, sometimes illegally. There are reports of drivers getting around regulations by purchasing licence plates from neighbouring provinces, “renting” licence plates from car dealerships, and buying used cars to use the previous owner’s licence plates.

Environmentalists say the government should look to more holistic measures to tackle the problem of vehicle emissions and congestion.

“We cannot only rely on controlling the number of vehicles, as higher quality gasoline and better city planning to reduce traffic congestion on roads can also reduce vehicle emissions,” said Zhang Kai, Assistant Manager of Climate & Energy Campaign for Greenpeace East Asia.

A report from the China Academy of Transportation Sciences recommended that the Beijing government encourage changes to social norms, such as promoting flexible working hours and working from home, in addition to car use restrictions.

Electric cars in China are exempt from licensing and driving restrictions, and the sector has expanded in recent years. But, as in other countries, the sector remains very small, with numbers still in the tens of thousands.

Despite the dubious progress made by the unpopular licence plate limits, some say they are better than having no curbs at all.

“Not only am I stuck in traffic all day I am breathing this air too,” said a taxi driver in Beijing on Thursday during the capital’s worst smog of the winter. “I can understand why other cities in China don’t want to become like Beijing,” he said.

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