Monday 31 March 2014

Talk again of congestion charging in Beijing

Anyone who visits Beijing can't help but notice the intensity of the levels of traffic in the city, which parallel the toxic atmosphere that blankets it as well.  Whilst it is unfair to blame Beijing's air primarily on road transport (Beijing did have many heavy industrial plants located there as part of a Maoist policy of glorifying such industry), it is clear that the excess demand for the available road space is not only strangling the city economically, but also contributing to its suffocation by pollution.

I've written before about the challenges in implementing congestion pricing in Beijing:

My view is that it can be done, but is probably best implemented on a zonal basis at this stage, with the key issue being able to enforce against number plates in a consistent, fair and well managed way. 

China Radio International reports that "The Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau has announced that it will draw up policies related to a congestion charge in a newly issued document."

Now this doesn't mean that there will a congestion charge, but rather that environmental policy advisors are pushing for it to be part of the solution to the city's pollution.  It could be, but it shouldn't be driven by that, but rather by optimising the efficiency of the current network, with incentives built into charging structures to encourage ultra low emission vehicles (and penalise high emission vehicles). 

Unfortunately, the CRI article isn't helpful as it says the London congestion charge led to a "very limited" improvement in air quality in the city, which is true, but it fails to note the small scale of the charging zone.   It also fails to note that London also now has a Low Emission Zone that penalises heavy vehicles with poor emissions ratings, across all of London.

Zonal system easiest?

Like I indicated before, Beijing would be better placed looking at its ample ring road network and considering congestion charging by implementing charges in the most congested zones, and progressively expanding the scope of the system so that charges are akin to public transport zones.  In other words, cars get charged for travelling across zonal boundaries, with higher charges for entering the most congested zones.

GPS be most effective, but most complex

Otherwise, it could learn from the developments underway in Oregon and Brussels, and consider distance based charging, by mandating that all vehicles in Beijing either pay by distance (with prices varying by road and time of day), or buy expensive day passes for driving in the city.   Charging by distance would avoid road users taking shortcuts to avoid charging points, avoid distorting the geographic, economic and social development of the city, and by targeting time and the busiest roads, fine tune management of congestion.

To encourage lower emissions, ultra low emission vehicles could be exempt or charged much less.

However, it does need to be able to be enforced, and that should be the central focus of the system development as that is always the greatest potential weakness, as it is dependent on a host of dependent databases and laws.   The technology to charge vehicles and run accounts is well proven, but it isn't technology that is the fundamental problem, it is basic governance.

Congestion charging wont be enough for Beijing, as it will still need some more road capacity, it should take steps to reverse the inconvenience motorisation has caused to cyclists and pedestrians, and it needs to ensure buses have high quality corridors (and can have investment and funding structures that encourage bus services to grow organically according to demand).  It also will need to continue developing its metro network.

However, without congestion charging, Beijing will remain gridlocked - it's as simple as that.

(acknowledgement to Lee Munnich of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, for tweeting the link @LeeMunnich )

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