The Problem With Beijing’s New Car Rules

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Beijing has announced a new set of restrictions on automobiles aimed at retaining some of the clean air the city enjoyed during the Olympics. My sense is that the benefits will be mild at best and that the exercise risks wasting the enthusiasm residents have for some sort of long-term solution to the pollution problem. The new rules, which are scheduled for a six-month trial beginning Oct. 11, call for a 30% reduction of government vehicle traffic, and for private vehicles to be restricted from using the roads one day a week. (The day a car will be banned is based on its license plate number.) The rules are less stringent than those during the Games, which only allowed private cars on the road every other day.

As some scientists predicted last summer, the car restrictions played a big part in providing blue skies during the Olympics. But what worked then, when the whole nation was preparing for such a pivotal event, is unlikely to work when everyone is going back to life as usual. Previously I mentioned Mexico City’s car restrictions, which were found to have little to no effect on air pollution. The problem was that once the rules became a semi-permanent way of life, people found ways around them, like buying a second-hand car. During the Olympics TIME’s Beijing bureau used our old Jeep, which rarely sees the road in normal times, on days when our usual ride was restricted. Xinhua’s story announcing the new rules even quotes a driver who says he will probably buy a second car to pick up his daughter on Fridays, the day his vehicle will be banned.

And what about the complaints that banning drivers from using their cars one day a week is an infringement on their property rights? Well, in return for their sacrifice car owners will be exempt from a month’s worth of vehicle taxes and road maintenance fees. All the better to buy or rent another car, it seems.

Here’s my suggestion: Why not drop the weekly car restrictions and raise the vehicle tax. Use the income from the tax hike to add buses and subway cars or lower fares. Beijingers have shown themselves to be sensitive to the cost of mass transit. When subway and bus fares were cut by 30% last year, ridership jumped to the highest levels ever recorded. Owning a car in China is still considered a privilege, not a right. Why not make the privilege a little pricier?

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