To help ease traffic jams, the traffic authority of Guangzhou in south China's booming Guangdong Province recently issued a proposal to charge a congestion fee to cars that enter the city center during peak hours.
Although it is still undergoing technical evaluation and has not been submitted for final approval, the proposal has caused widespread public concern, most of which has been negative.
A recent editorial in the Guangdong-based Southern Metropolis Daily indicates that more than 90 percent of respondents said they oppose a road congestion fee. The editorial suggests however that limiting vehicle production and purchases is the main way to relieve traffic jams.
A commentary in the Beijing-based Global Times also says because drivers already pay road tolls and other taxes for the right to use transportation facilities, the government has a responsibility to provide convenient public road access.
For years, heavily congested cities such as Singapore and London have charged drivers fees to enter their city centers to try to reduce road congestion, but the results have not been as good as the governments expected.
London is just as congested as it was six years ago before the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003. The policy has not eased problems for London motorists who move at a crawl through the city's clogged streets.
"I have always thought that the congestion charge is a blunt instrument," London Mayor Boris Johnson once said. Others suggested that London should stop levying this costly, unnecessary and damaging tax on west Londoners.
In Singapore, the traffic congestion fee has reduced the amount of cars in the city center since 1975, but the policy only covers an area of six square kilometers. How could a similar policy be applied to Guangzhou's much larger downtown area?
It would be unwise to emulate foreign cities. Several other cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, also considered congestion fees in recent years, but they shelved the idea, fearing a public backlash.
There are several reasons for this, I believe.
First of all, the traffic congestion fee is not the major means to solve the problem of worsening traffic. In my view, increased congestion could be the result of poor traffic management, a lack of awareness of traffic rules, and an unbalanced encouragement of automobile production and sales based on immediate economic gains, which are on the whole something that the government should work more closely on rather than just focusing on charging people money.
Besides increasing the city's road capacity, traffic authorities should also make greater efforts to enhance public transportation development and management. But so far public transportation is far from enough. Therefore, it is too early to consider a congestion fee before the full potential of public transportation has been tapped. If the main problems are not solved, traffic congestion will continue as it is even if traffic congestion fees are imposed.
Second, I don't think it would be an effective policy. Current public transportation is not good enough. So if more people decide to take buses instead of driving their own cars simply because of the extra fees they are charged, they will have to spend more time commuting on frustratingly overcrowded buses. And this will compel many to return to driving their cars again.
If adopted, how could the policy be effective in curbing traffic jams in the long run?What's more, if the cost of reducing traffic jams is extreme inconvenience caused by inadequate public transportation, then it is definitely unfair for both car owners and bus takers.
If this is the case, there will be more people who have to squeeze into the subways and buses during rush hours. Naturally, public transportation will become even more crowded and this will cause several other problems such as thefts.
Third, it would not be feasible to adopt the policy throughout China. Public cars, such as those owned by the government, take up a large share of road resources in cities. It is said that nearly half of the vehicles on the roads are state-owned and that they would not mind paying congestion fees which would be covered by government budgets.
Fourth, transportation taxes are already high, but traffic congestion remains bad. The proposed policy will not do much to alleviate traffic but simply increase the burden of private car owners.
Fifth, a traffic congestion tax would cause traffic jams in other areas. When the traffic flows better in zones where congestion fees are charged, people tend to complain that traffic becomes worse in peripheral zones.
Sixth, technically it is hard to establish an efficient and fair transportation pricing system. In Singapore, for example, when congestion charges were first introduced in 1975, the city used a manual-based system. But if Chinese cities were to do likewise, there will be even more and heavier traffic jams.
Although Singapore upgraded its congestion pricing system in 1988, the system will still not that workable in China, where there are many more drivers and larger areas of traffic jams.
To conclude, therefore, the government should come up with more effective ways to reduce traffic jams instead of charging car owners more money. They should further develop public transportation and improve roads and their management. Charging fees is not what most drivers want, and it will not help alleviate traffic on the whole at all. What we need are more buses, more subways, more roads and better management, to form a more efficient traffic network in China's cities.
(CRI August 6, 2009)