The Chinese authorities have announced some fairly drastic new measures limiting car use in the capital, Beijing, such that only half of the four million private cars in the city will be allowed on the roads on days when the air quality is particularly poor. Under the new measures, a ‘traffic light’ system will be introduced to categorise air pollution, a large proportion of which is derived from motor vehicles in many modern cities, and, when the traffic lights ‘turn red’, only cars with licence plate numbers ending in an odd number will be allowed on the roads, with even number-ending plates taking the hit the next time air quality dips below the relevant threshold.
These are not the first restrictions affecting car drivers in Beijing, however. The city first introduced some rationing of road space in 2008 when it hosted the Olympic Games, and this proved so effective at improving air quality (and also, incidentally, if not surprisingly, reducing traffic congestion) that a modified version of the restriction was made permanent in October 2008, with 20% of the vehicles being banned from use on a given weekday since then. The number of private cars on the roads of the Chinese capital has risen by almost three quarters of a million in the five years since then, however, which is presumably one of the main drivers (sorry!) of the new regulations.
Beijing is by no means the first world city to have introduced ‘licence plate lottery’ limitations on when private cars can be driven, however, with numerous large Latin American cities (such as Sao Paulo in Brazil, Santiago in Chile and Mexico City) having introduced similar schemes in the 1990s and 2000s. Over in Europe, meanwhile, Athens has a scheme in place (and anecdotal evidence suggests that any motorist who could afford to bought a run-down second car with an ‘appropriate’ licence plate when the scheme was introduced so that he could effectively drive whenever he wanted to, after a few seconds work with a screwdriver). Paris and New York are both known to have mooted limiting the days when drivers can drive in order to improve air quality but in both cases the plans were dropped for political reasons. With the UK (and many other EU nations) possibly heading towards heavy fines for breaching pollution limits, however, it will be interesting to see if similar proposals to Beijing’s (and Athens’, and Mexico City’s) resurface within the foreseeable future, and then whether it is politically possible to implement them.