Wednesday 22 December 2010

Does Beijing need congestion pricing?

An article published by the official Chinese government owned Xinhua News Agency claims to have been written by "lead infrastructure specialist of the World Bank Office, Beijing", and that congestion can only be resolved by introducing forms of demand management for road transport.

It gives an excellent summary of how rapid growth in car ownership and traffic in Seoul, Republic of Korea, caused similar pressures and that simply building subway capacity was inadequate.   Measures were increasingly taken to reallocate road space for buses,  changing planners laws that had required minimum numbers of parking spaces in new properties, raising parking charges and raising tolls.  Measures to enhance the attractiveness of walking and cycling have also been part of Seoul's formula.

The World Bank has suggested a series of measures to manage congestion, but warned that supply side solutions have never sustainably resolved traffic congestion in any major city in the world.   The solutions promoted have been a mix of :
-  Additional road infrastructure where it is economic (and particularly to facilitate bypass movements);
- Reallocation of road space for buses and cycling;
- Controls on vehicle ownership;
- Taxes and charges on vehicle usage.

The article makes it clear that demand management measures are needed in Beijing, and it is right.

I'd also add, in the Beijing context, that it should include significant enhancements to the attractiveness of walking and safety for pedestrians and cyclists.  I've been to Beijing twice, and one of the key features is how motorists get away with running red lights, ignoring pedestrian cross signals and cutting off pedestrians and cyclists.   Enforcement of traffic laws is extremely lax, and given the high proportion of residents who walk and cycle, maintaining this is critical.

For Beijing, public transport also faces overcrowding, so ensuring short trips are more economically and easily undertaken on foot or cycle is rather important, as is pricing public transport so it is financially operationally self sustaining.   This will allow it to grow and develop beyond the vagaries of public funding, but also importantly avoid public transport taking people from the active modes of cycling and walking.  Public transport should never be allowed to be neglected for lack of funds, but be able to respond to what demand management on roads (and economic growth) should present.

However, the road side is more critical.  A crackdown on driver licencing requirements, vehicle safety enforcement and driver behaviour would buy some time, save lives, reduce accidents (which themselves generate congestion) and enable the more complex measures to be introduced.   Market based parking, which sees planning rules on minimum parking requirements scrapped and for government owned parking to be priced to make a profit, would make a considerable difference.  However, beyond that the bigger question is congestion pricing.

China has used tolls to finance many of its major road building projects, particularly intercity motorways.  However, it has no standard system to raise revenue to pay for the ongoing maintenance and enhancement of the existing network (since government has been sufficiently flush with cash).  What it needs to consider is how road pricing might be introduced to raise revenue and manage congestion.

Beijing already has several ring roads orbiting the city, all of which could be thresholds for some form of congestion pricing.   Each could theoretically form a kind of cordon, with pricing imposed for crossing it in each direction, with pricing different at each offramp or crossing over the ring road.   In other words, a sophisticated form of Singapore's existing Electronic Road Pricing system, which allows prices to vary by road and time.  Such cordons would maintain free travel within individual zones, which could be divided by the ring roads and key radial highways.   Key to this is having good quality number plate databases and setting up accounts for motorists to pay.  The money collected could ensure maintenance and enhancement of the existing road network, and facilities for cyclists and pedestrians.  Technology need not be complicated, although I might suggest that given China's ambitions, the new US 5.9 GHz standard for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) has enormous potential to not only charge, but implement a wide range of safety and information based ITS applications.

The step beyond that would be distance charging, but Beijing's geography is such that the sort of system I have briefly outlined could deliver significant demand management benefits and have a high degree of disaggregation by time and location already.   It has the advantage of indirectly creating a distance charge by ensuring those who cross multiple cordons pay the most.

Unlike Tokyo, Seoul and Bangkok, China's cities now have the chance to introduce sophisticated forms of congestion pricing to ensure roads remain functional and mobile, as well as also providing significant environmental benefits.   China is not absent political barriers, despite the obvious reputation for being authoritarian, but it would appear that what is needed is to rebalance the enthusiasm for allowing people to become car owners, to implementing market reforms on parking and roads.

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