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UPDATED: August 10, 2015 No. 33 AUGUST 13, 2015
Will Congestion Fees Make Traffic Flow Smoother?


At the 2015 Conference on Urban Development and Planning held in south China's Guangzhou, Qiu Baoxing, former Vice Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, proposed that Chinese cities struggling with serious congestion should take inspiration from foreign cities versed in traffic management such as London, Milan and New York, which levy congestion fees on cars entering certain sections of their city areas.

His suggestions were quick to draw fire countrywide. Although some believe the measure might help relieve over-congestion, the majority of people oppose the measure, arguing that since congestion is in the first place caused by poor urban planning, passing the buck onto drivers through fee collection is disingenuous.

Shi Hongju (Changsha Evening News): The reality is that more people now own cars with the expansion of the economy and urban areas. However, it's questionable whether measures taken to relieve traffic congestion in other countries will also prove effective in China.

Traffic congestion occurs for many reasons. It can owe to road planning complications, the public's travel habits, and the number of motor cars on the road. It can also depend on the public's respect for the law. If people jump red lights or drive in the wrong lanes, the probability of traffic jams increases. If these people are not severely fined and punished, but instead merely required to pay a piffling congestion fee, it is completely unacceptable.

Big cities tend to act as a magnet for job hunters owing to job opportunities as well as the various forms of welfare benefits and modern conveniences they offer. Whether or not traffic congestion fee will really enable traffic to run more smoothly, however, is a moot point. Examples of failed schemes involving price hikes can be seen everywhere: from relieving pressure on railway transportation networks by raising ticket prices to reducing the number of visitors to scenic areas by jacking up the price of admission. Rather than being functional, these measures could easily be interpreted as similarly exploitative.

Denizens of big cities actually are already under heavy pressure owing to the high cost of housing, education, medical care and pensions, and part of the government's remit is to alleviate such pressure. There exist no proper excuses for urban administrators to levy congestion fees. Urban residents already endure high-travel costs as well as travel restrictions such as those placed on the basis of their cars' license plate numbers, but no visible improvements have yet been observed. Who then can produce evidence establishing that the traffic congestion fee would fare any better?

In short, the responsibility for bad decision making should be shouldered by decision makers and not the public.

Zhang Songchao (China Youth Daily): Cities like Tokyo and Paris, which have become known for their traffic woes, have higher traffic volume than some Chinese cities but far less serious congestion. The major reason for this is not that they collect congestion fees, but rather improved planning.

The government is obligated to provide the public with solutions. Car owners are already subject to a multitude of taxes like the fuel tax. The levying of congestion fees is therefore unjustifiable. Moreover, the experience of other countries suggests that traffic congestion fee may cause roads to become even more crowded than before. Most of the collected fees are not spent on improving the traffic situation and road planning, but are rather embezzled as administrative expenses on other items.

When it comes to the management of congestion, the market rule is by no means the only principle to follow, and foreign practices will not necessarily work well in China. Imposing traffic congestion fees is not necessarily a catch-all solution. Take Tokyo for example. After decades of urban expansion, the city's traffic volume also doubled, causing the rail transit system to supplant the car as the most popular form of transport. Their city government also mooted the introduction of various automobile-related fees, but later backtracked on the idea.

Zhang Haiying (China Youth Daily): London has applied congestion fees in central areas since 2003, but this is no excuse for Chinese cities to follow suit. Traffic congestion is a multifaceted problem, and the results of levying congestion fees in London have proven disappointing. Blindly copying other's unsuccessful model would be irresponsible.

Chinese cities share a common problem, that is, public resources are overly limited to city centers. People have to gather in such areas to get things done, which naturally leads to gridlock. If the urban public resources were to be better spread out, would such clusters and the attendant congestion even exist?

Beijing has begun to transfer some of its functions, mostly those not befitting a capital city, to other areas, so as to relieve congestion and overpopulation. The result of doing so will only be seen in the coming years, but it must be pointed out that this is a step in the right direction as regards countering congestion. The key issue is the willingness of big city administrators to transfer more public resources to other surrounding areas.

These resources can mean a lot to a city. For example, the local government's financial revenues and the GDP growth may depend primarily on commercial resources. If the city is reluctant to relocate these resources, then the traffic problem will remain fundamentally unsolved.

Be it congestion fees or license plate restrictions, car owners' legitimate rights and interests are being harmed. If measures to address traffic problems come at the expense of the public interest and fail to solve the underlying causes of the problem, they will be inevitably subject to doubt and criticism.

Li Hong (www.cien.com.cn): Though cars now abound on the streets of Chinese cities, the expansion of roads and construction of traffic facilities have not kept pace. To make matters worse, Chinese cities tend to concentrate resources and facilities in their downtown areas. When the majority of people travel to the same area to do business, traffic jams become the norm. This congestion has actually restricted the further modernization of cities.

More importantly, existing case studies have demonstrated that even if traffic congestion fees are collected, the traffic will not thus automatically subside, as this measure is tackling the surface symptoms and not the roots of the problem. Take London for example, where congestion fees have failed to smooth the flow of traffic. A lot of big cities in other countries do not charge this fee, but still enjoy enviable traffic conditions compared to those commonly experienced in Chinese cities.

Urban administrators should first consider fine-tuning urban planning, resource distribution and traffic management, and a congestion fee should be considered as the measure of last resort. Even if the government has to impose the fee, it should first consult with the public.

Wang Dan (Zhengzhou Evening News): Several major reasons exist for traffic congestion: underdeveloped public traffic systems, too many automobiles on the roads, and the concentration of central business districts. Therefore, to cope with congestion, rather than exclusively relying on charging congestion fees, other supplementary policies should be put in place.

Cities are expanding while more and more families are coming to possess one or more cars. If the fees are collected, they will be the major contributors. Generally, when the price for a public product is to be raised, a hearing on the issue is held, so why has this not been the case in this instance? This new fee will affect most families in cities, hence it must be planned carefully. With important issues, decision makers must lend an ear to the public before a decision is made.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com


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