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Measures needed to limit cars on roads
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Cities like Shanghai and Beijing must show stronger resolve to curb the number of cars on the road before their traffic jams and air quality deteriorate further.

For Shanghai, it will be an especially tough battle considering the city's 13-year-old car license auction system has often been questioned, protested and even called "illegal" by relevant authorities.

The city has not backed down. Municipal government spokeswoman Jiao Yang has said the city has so far no plans to abolish the auction system. Other government officials have also cited the system as an effective way to prevent local traffic from being paralyzed by excessive cars.

Considering Shanghai is the only Chinese city to practice such an auction system, the pressure must be very high.

Fortunately Shanghai received a major shot in the arm recently when former UN Under Secretary General Klaus Toepfer, once head of the UN Environment Program, praised the city's license plate auction system as "an effective management measure" at a recent meeting in Shanghai.

Those words from someone with such an international stature are a huge and timely encouragement for those who have supported the system throughout the years.

For many Shanghainese, the need to limit the number of cars on the road is simply out of necessity. It has become more so every year.

Those who want to call off the auction system are simply ignoring the dire reality in Shanghai or are motivated by a special business interest.

While traffic jams used to occur only on weekdays and during rush hour, they now occur on weekends as well. "Rush hour" has turned into several "rush hours".

These developments have taken place in just a few years, all while the auction system was still in place. Each month, only about 5,000 to 7,000 license plates are auctioned, with prices hitting a record 50,000 yuan (US$6600) last month.

Traffic congestion has already become nightmarish in Shanghai. People - both those driving cars and those taking buses - are moving slower as more cars hit local streets.

Car owners, who pretend to be innocent in this issue, should feel responsible for contributing to this traffic mess - a mess that constitutes an infringement on other people's rights to smooth traffic.

Air pollution is equally disastrous. If you walk in any part of the city center, you smell car exhaust.

Lung cancer has become one of the top killers for local residents. More people are suffering from respiratory illnesses. The blood-lead levels of many young children have reached unhealthy heights, harming their mental capabilities.

So what is really troubling to many in Shanghai -- ordinary residents and government officials alike -- is not the auction system, but why, even with such a system, traffic woes still haunt, more so every passing day.

The auction system is obviously not a silver bullet.

Many local buyers have chosen to register their cars in neighboring cities, which charge only a fraction for a license plate compared to Shanghai's hefty 50,000 yuan.

It is estimated that more than 100,000 local residents have registered their cars in other cities. The real figure, some believe, is hard to track.

Car dealers, who are understandably opposed to any car control measures, have been offering one-stop service for those who want to register out of town.

These clients usually buy cheap cars. Spending 50,000 yuan for a license plate, close to their car's price tag, is crazy to them.

In fact, decision makers and traffic control experts in Shanghai have all realized these problems and have never stopped working on new plans.

For the last six years, a group of local experts have been studying various options.

Apart from building more roads and a mass public transit system, key to the plan is the introducing congestion charges in a designated zone in the city center, just like London and Singapore.

Sun Lijun, an urban traffic expert and professor at Tongji University, is an active member of the study.

According to Sun, the plan is now in its third phase of study. The second and third phases are both about fine-tuning the technical aspects.

Sun firmly believes that if Shanghai carries out such a plan now, it will have done more due diligence than London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who introduced congestion charges in 2003 under great pressure and criticism. But it turned out to be a great success.

It is so successful that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to follow suit.

It is often true that the introduction of any new policy, which threatens to change the status quo, will meet opposition.

That has been proven in the country's reform and opening-up over the last 29 years.

The dismal reality of Shanghai's clogged traffic, fume-rich air and the high blood lead level among young children is compelling. It tells us to act soon and act now.

The auction system intends to curb the demand for cars, while the congestion charge is aimed at reducing the use of cars.

The congestion charge and auction system working side by side will be a more forceful measure to control the number of cars on the city's streets.

Beijing has been paying a high price for not taking any of these actions. Every day, more than 3 million cars cause traffic snarls and public grievances in the capital.

Again, automakers and other interest groups will not like the idea of a congestion charge.

This is exactly why big cities like Shanghai and Beijing need to show special determination to wage a tough battle.

(China Daily November 3, 2007)

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