By Jasmin Sun
For the past three months, Zhou Yu, a middle-school English teacher in Beijing’s Tong Zhou district, has been trying to get her hands on a license plate for her first car.
As recently as last year, all a prospective car owner had to do was file a stack of paperwork at the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport and wait a few days for the registration to take effect. Today, however, the process can literally take forever – the result of the license plate lottery policy implemented by city officials in January.
Aimed at alleviating the city’s chronically gridlocked roads, the new traffic regulation drastically reduces the number of plates issued each year. Only 240,000 will be distributed in 2011, less than one-third of the previous year’s amount.
And that’s bad news for Zhou and other drivers waiting to get green-lighted for cars of their own. “Life would be so much more convenient if I had a car,” Zhou says. “It would take less time to get to work, and getting errands done would be more efficient, especially when you have to go to several places in one day.”
To qualify for the lottery, you must be a Beijing resident in possession of a Beijing hukou, or registration. You also can’t have already purchased the car for which you’re trying to get a license plate.
For Zhou, the new policy means having to navigate through the city’s crowded and still-developing subway system after her family’s shared car failed the yearly emissions test two years ago.
The city’s lottery strategy aims to work in conjunction with a number of policies already in effect. One directive restricts people from driving on specific days of the week based on the ending digit of their car’s license plate. Beijing drivers must also submit their cars to a yearly emissions test to determine whether their cars are still suitable to drive.
The driving limitations mostly serve to give the city a chance to improve its public transportation systems and complete more street construction projects, explains Wu Hongyang, associate professor of the China Urban Sustainable Transport Research Center, a Beijing-based organization specializing in urban planning research.
While the lottery rule spells out uncertainty for soon-to-be car owners, longtime drivers see it as an effective new policy for the city’s future.
“I’m a big fan of the lottery policy,” says Li Xuan, who has been driving in Beijing since 2004. “I think it really works here. While traffic in the city still appears to be about the same… it will be effective in controlling the amount of cars on the road in the long run.”
Despite any positive speculations, the city’s gridlock problem still has yet to be resolved. “The traffic situation in Beijing still has a long way to go,” says China Urban Sustainable Transport Research Center director Jiang Yulin, “but it has definitely improved since January.”
In recent months, Beijing officials have unveiled a new rule allowing “green” — hybrid, fuel cell or electric — car buyers to bypass entering the license plate lottery, suggesting that the city’s environmental concerns may be starting to outweigh any issues of commuter frustration.
Resident drivers feel that the higher prices of such vehicles may offset any convenience not having to enter the lottery may provide.
“There are few gas stations for hybrid cars,” Zhao says. “The cars are also significantly more expensive than gasoline vehicles — even before taxes are added — so I think people will continue to buy traditional cars.”
Although Beijing’s traffic rules may not be as effective as originally intended, traffic researchers remain hopeful. “The policies give more people a chance to experience a method of transportation they might never have tried otherwise,” says Wu.
“Perhaps some might even decide that they prefer public transportation over driving a car,” he says.