Thursday, 8 September 2011

What should a Beijing congestion charge system look like? 了北京交通拥堵费应该是什么样子?


The BBC reported earlier this week that the Xinhua News Agency had reported that Beijing is looking to introduce congestion pricing. It offers few insights, but Beijing has been experiencing reductions in traffic recently due to increases in parking charges and fuel prices. It introduced a limit on new car registrations, but the effectiveness of this will be restricted to those who have no options to register addresses or ownership of cars outside the city.

The idea of congestion charging Beijing has received a lot of commentary, some ill-informed suggesting that CCTV cameras can do it (they can’t). Some suggesting it be London style (it wont be enough). The report itself indicated it might apply to a few roads, but Beijing would be wise to not just copy what is done elsewhere, or let engineers implement what is feasible. Rather it should analyse the congestion problem itself, map out where and when it happens, and design a system to address that. Given the exuberance of engineers to build and design solutions that fit what they think can be done, it is wiser for policy managers to take a deep breath and decide what they want to achieve, rather than what they are told they can do.

China Daily reports the goal is to increase public transport mode share for trips within the Fifth Ring Road to 50%, up from 40%, and to reduce travel time to 1 hour from outer suburbs to the fifth ring road.

Beijing with Fifth Ring Road highlighted
On the face of it, Beijing needs a charging system that is quite comprehensive. Simply charging individual routes will result in diversion, and simply charging one big zone will have only limited impact. What is needed is a scheme that will be easy to implement as of first, but which is readily scalable. Singapore has the closest model to this at the moment, but its technology is now obsolete for any new systems. My suggestion is that Beijing, indeed China, take a far bolder step.

Given the expected growth in road transport in the next few decades, China is in a perfect position to take advantage of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) to manage traffic and improve safety. A few years ago it was reported that China had the highest road fatality rate globally, on a per vehicle basis. While there are a lot of conventional measures that can be taken to address this, one should be to build an ITS platform for safety and tolling measures to be introduced across the country.

One option would be to adopt the US 5.9GHz platform as mandatory for all new vehicles (no doubt China may prefer to have its own and the EU has another standard), which would allow for the following safety related applications:
- Emergency vehicle warning system;
- Forward collision warning;
- Intersection collision warning and avoidance (road and rail crossing);
- Active highway cruise control (allowing vehicles to be more closely spaced);
- Priority signal control for buses and emergency vehicles;
- In vehicle sign displays;
- Vehicle instability warning (e.g. cornering too fast).

I visited Beijing for the ITS World Congress in 2007, and saw that there are hundreds of Chinese firms and people with the talent to progress such systems in the country.  There are equally many firms worldwide eager to install and help operate systems.  The key frustration for most ITS professionals is the cost of retrofitting infrastructure and vehicles to take their technology, a problem that isn't so big where both infrastructure and vehicles are newer, and growth makes such a transformation potentially affordable.

However, my key interest is having a vehicle identifier that makes it cheap and efficient to do electronic free flow tolling. Then the matter of number plate recognition and maintaining a high quality number plate database (and enforcement system to recover fines), can be minimized if all vehicles are required to have a DSRC device that is sophisticated enough to be used for tolling.

Initially, it could be used to phase out manual toll booths, reducing congestion on them, but for Beijing it would allow for electronic toll gantries to be installed strategically to manage congestion. Each gantry could be priced at different times at different prices in order to target charges. Of course the best targeting could be done with a GPS based system measuring distance, but for now let’s consider what Beijing could do with a tag and beacon/DSRC type system.

The image below (click it to expand) shows how Beijing, within the 5th ring road, can be split between major arterials to form zones. The obvious example for an area charge is the very centre, but that would never be enough to address congestion on the scale required in Beijing. Far better will be to charge for trips between zones. Trips on the boundary roads could remain untolled, far better to allow efficient trips around the zones, but to penalise for travelling further.

Ring roads in red, radials in yellow, a framework for a charge?

Parallel to this obviously has to be to allow for growth in bus services, but I’d suggest they also must consider active modes as well, which have done extremely badly from Beijing’s rapid expansion of roads. Walking and cycling may have once been seen as modes used by people in poor countries, but they are cheap, healthy and occupy the lowest amount of road space per person moved. Enforcing pedestrian crossing, building over and underpasses, and cycle lanes will all be important in ensuring people don’t feel that it is unsafe to walk and bike short distances.

Meanwhile, Beijing could do worse than watch Jakarta as it seems likely to progress before it does, or to look at the extensive work undertaken in the 1990s on electronic road pricing in Hong Kong. However, the key enabler for all of this is enforcement, identifying vehicles and pursuing violators, without the means to do this efficiently, congestion pricing is not going to be effective.

Then there is the issue about what to do with the money.  The obvious answer is to use it to pay for road maintenance and upgrades, improved pedestrian and cycling facilities, or offset other taxes or restrictions.   The more transparency around this the better, and it could gain public support if people saw

Meanwhile, central government in China should consider how to future proof road transport by considering how it can built in ITS to its networks and vehicles from the start. For developed motoring countries like the USA, the cost and transition period to move to using technology on roads is high and long term. China has both the money, time and the forward growth to be a world leader in ITS and ITS managed highways. It can do so and at the same time, save lives, reduce congestion and pollution.

Meanwhile, Shenzhen is considering congestion pricing according to Xinhua, and it definitely has the experience of Hong Kong's extensive studies and trials to draw upon.

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