(Originally featured on The City Fix).
As heard today on The New York Times Dot Earth blog, Chinese officials in Guangzhou — China’s third largest city and the capital of Guangdong (China’s wealthiest province) — are considering congestion pricing as an option to address increasing traffic woes. In Andy Revkin’s “Postcard from a Guangzhou Traffic Jam,” Charles Komanoff, a transportation and traffic specialist from New York City who advised Mayor Bloomberg on a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan’s busiest blocks, draws lessons learned from Bloomberg’s failure to win state Democrats’ approval of the proposal to Guangzhou. Komanoff presented his experience with the NYC plan in an “International Symposium on Analysis and Countermeasures of Traffic Congestion in Urban Centers,” noting that because traffic gridlock affects every major Chinese city, he along with the other invited speakers were “tailed by the media as if we were rock stars.”
Celebrity stardom aside, Komanoff makes a few interesting points with regards to the prospect of congestion pricing for China:
Transport solutions like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and subway systems may not be enough to address the rocketing pace of transportation demand in Chinese cities like Guangzhou. Guangzhou’s barely a month-old Bus Rapid Transit system is already attracting a mind-blowing 800,000 passengers a day, which Komanoff remarks is about half the number of people riding NYC city buses. This point seems to suggest that while BRT may be a successful solution for congested streets in other rapidly developing contexts like Mexico City, it is not a transportation cure-all, especially for cities like Guangzhou, which may soon exceed the capacity and benefits of a BRT system along with other public transport solutions, like subway lines. Already, Guangzhou has built five subway lines since 1999 and plans to have 20 routes covering at least 500 kilometers by 2020. Instead, Komanoff suggests the Chinese need to be looking beyond BRT and subway systems to implement a range of solutions to ease traffic congestion.
Out of necessity, Chinese officials are now considering congestion pricing. Rising double-digit car ownership and expansion outpacing the city’s provision of transport options mean that the government is more seriously considering congestion pricing. While Guangzhou already experimented with a proposal to charge a fee for vehicles entering the city during peak hours last August, it was met with heavy resistance from citizens who said the government has a responsibility to provide for convenient public road access, given drivers already have to pay road tolls and other taxes for road use. Komanoff relies on economics to argue that drivers are failing to factor in the opportunity costs associated with lost time when gridlocked highways force them to spend inordinate amounts of time in their vehicles trying to get from point A to point B. But what “willingness-to-pay” market sweet spot will convince Chinese drivers that they’d rather pay a congestion price than sit in their cars, stuck in traffic?
Komanoff has a few ideas, based on lessons learned from NYC and other cities, where congestion pricing has shown to be successful, like Singapore, London and Stockholm. He suggests three key considerations:
- The effects must be visible and dramatic. To garner political backing, congestion pricing must be able to achieve at least a 15 percent increase in travel speed.
- The fee must align benefits with costs. New York has instituted a significant taxi surcharge of 50 cents per ride to ensure that those who take taxis rather than public transport options are also contributing to a congestion charge. Does this mean we’ll see the disappearance of extremely cheap (compared to Western prices) taxi rides in China?
- Transit improvements financed by the toll revenues have to come in advance, and fare reductions guaranteed. Again, residents need to be aware of the immediate benefits of congestion pricing.
The symposium where Komanoff presented was the first public conversation of congestion pricing in China. Government authorities communicated the rationale and benefits of congestion pricing, bringing in experts from around the world to share their expertise and experience to the public. This move by the Chinese government seems to suggest authorities are aware of the need for public support in such a large-scale endeavor that requires public approval in order to be successful. In a country where an authoritarian system of government has allowed for extremely rapid, efficient implementation of policy from the top-down, forums where public conversations regarding environmental policies are not the norm. However, such a system of governance has allowed for everything, except traffic, to move at “warp speed,” according to Komanoff. And unless New York can also find a way to unite behind a better congestion pricing plan, he warns that “we may find ourselves being tutored in traffic relief by experts from China.”