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GBJ Explainer: Why Beijing traffic is so congested, and what can be done about it

“The issue of traffic congestion in Beijing is a matter of widespread concern." (Photo from Wix library)


Global Business Journalism reporter

Beijing is one of the most densely populated capital cities in the world. With over 21 million residents and a rapidly growing economy, China’s capital is facing a significant challenge: traffic congestion.

Other mega-capitals like Seoul, Cairo and Mexico City have their share of traffic woes, but none of them can match the economic development that is bringing millions of additional commuters into its central districts.

Beijing’s traffic woes are a central concern to local government officials, who are aware that gridlock damages the quality of life for urban workers.

“The issue of traffic congestion in Beijing is a matter of widespread concern,” said Wang Lincheng, Vice President of the Beijing Institute of Transportation Development Research.

And things are getting worse, although Wang said the coronavirus pandemic slowed the increase in traffic congestion in Beijing. Still, according to Baidu’s China Urban Transportation Report for 2023 Beijing topped the list with a traffic index of 2.08, showing a 5.6% increase in commuter peak traffic congestion. In 2019, out of 100 cities, the capital ranked number two with a traffic index of 1.97.

This indicates that with the increase in traffic, an average person spends more than half of their commute time stuck in traffic between the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. What’s more, since 2019, there has been an 12% surge in the number of motor vehicles. A report from Beijing Statistical Bulletin on National Economic and Social Development released in March this year shows that by the end of 2022, the number of motor vehicles in Beijing was 7.128 million, an increase of 763,000 from 2019.

The consequences of traffic congestion are far-reaching. It increases commute times, decreases productivity, and even results in monetary loss. The recent Baidu Urban Transportation report has revealed Beijing has the longest average commute time out of 100 Chinese cities, with people living in central urban areas spending an average of 45 ½ minutes commuting.

With people spending more than half an hour commuting each day, Beijing occurs direct and indirect economic annual losses of approximately hundreds of billions of Chinese yuan, according to Dai Yifan, Director of the Intelligent and Connected Vehicle Center at the Suzhou Automotive Research Institute of Tsinghua University.

“This data roughly accounts for 5% of Beijing's gross domestic product,” he said.

An army of delivery drivers add to Beijing congestion. (GBJ photo)

Because of exorbitant housing prices within Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road, less-affluent commuters live beyond the central city and endure hour-plus drives twice each workday. Nearly half of all Beijing drivers exceed acceptable commuting times, the transport institute’s report shows.

Residents living near the 5th Ring Road and the 6th Ring Road form the majority of "super commuters,” with average drives of more than an hour each way. The congestion is especially serious for workers living in the far-flung Tongzhou and Daxing districts. Those living outside of Beijing in three counties - Xianghe, Dachang, and Sanhe - and in areas of Hebei province neighboring the capital face even longer commuting times.

Fang Yuyuan, a marketing assistant living in the southwestern district of Fengtai, wakes up at 7 a.m., to work in Chaoyang district by car.

"It takes me about an hour to get to my workplace, which is acceptable to me, as many of my colleagues spend even more time commuting," she said. "The roads can be very crowded after 9 am, so I prefer to go early."

Electric Vehicle Surge Spurs More Auto Traffic

With the price war started by the U.S. electric automaker Tesla and the easier-to-acquire car plates for electric vehicles, there are more vehicles on Beijing’s streets. A report from Beijing Clean Energy Vehicle Development Plan, the number of electric vehicles in 2022 was 716,000 and they are estimating by the end of 2023, the number of new energy vehicles will exceed 1.6 million.

The EV price war started in October 2022 when Tesla cut the prices of its popular models in China. The discounts were further escalated in January, making locally produced cars up to 14% less expensive than in 2022. To keep up with the stiff competition, China-based EV companies like NIO, XPEV, and BYD felt they were left with no choice but to follow Tesla’s lead.

The competition has led to a spurt in EV sales – and a spike in new cars on Beijing’s roads. One in four cars in China sold in 2022 was an EV from BVD, according to research from Counterpoint’s Global Passenger Electric Vehicle Model Sales Tracker. The sales surge is taxing the metropolitan areas limited road capacity and extending the hours during which its highway system is gridlocked.

Ma Yibo, who plans to purchase an electric car, said that one of the main reasons he chose electric cars is the lower price.

“I find that new energy vehicles are more affordable,” he said. “With the government advocating more usage of new energy vehicles and the availability of government subsidies, more young people like me find it more attractive.”

Electric vehicles give drivers an advantage in applying for coveted license plates. (Wix library photo)

The savings don’t end with the new car purchase, he noted.

“Additionally, using electricity for daily commuting instead of fuel saves me more money,” he remarked.

The lower price of electric vehicles is not the only driving factor that convinces people to choose them over motor vehicles. Another big reason is that it is easier to get a highly regulated license plate for an auto if you buy an EV.

Yibo explained that acquiring an electric vehicle license plate in Beijing is simpler as they are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis as opposed to the gasoline-powered vehicle plates that residents can only obtain plates through a lottery system. But there are still more incentives to buy a new EV.

“Another advantage of electric cars to gasoline cars is that electric cars are not subjected to the current driving restrictions,“ he added. “I can use my electric car every day, while gasoline vehicles have a restriction on vehicles according to their plate numbers.”

And starting this year, the government has announced it will allocate 100,000 car license plates, allotting 30% to fuel-powered vehicles and 70% to EVs.

Wang, the vice president of the Beijing Institute of Transportation Development Research, said that while electric vehicles are no more advanced technologically than their gasoline-powered rivals, they are particularly popular because of the license plate situation.

“The ease of obtaining license plates for electric vehicles is primarily due to the allocation of license plate quotas and not an inherent advantage [in the quality] of electric vehicles over diesel vehicles,” he said.

Wang also added that because of the government’s goals of carbon neutrality by 2030 and peaking carbon emissions by 2030 and 2050, fuel-powered vehicles are likely to face stricter controls and electric vehicles should play a more significant role as society moves toward greater sustainability.

Combatting Congestion Through an Expanded Subway Network

Beijing's Municipal Committee suggested two causes of the traffic congestion in the capital city: the “mismatch” between the increasing number of vehicles and the slower pace of road development and the increasing affordability of electric vehicles.

Wang said there are limited opportunities for further road construction or expansion in Beijing, particularly within the Fifth Ring Road, where there is almost no more space for additional road construction. In response, the government has been expanding the subway network to help solve the issue of traffic congestion.

As of March 2023, the total length of Beijing's subway network reached 807 kilometers. In addition, one of the key projects for Beijing this year is the construction of 12 additional subway lines and six railways, Wang added.

According to the plan, one of the new lines to be built is a branch line of Beijing's first metro line, Line 1, running between the city's east and west. And the northern extension of Line 17 in the eastern part of the city and the remaining part of Line 16 in the southwestern area of the city will become operational by the end of the year. Wang also said that they are projecting the subway network in Beijing to expand a total length of 1,177 kilometers.

Siphoning Commuters into the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Triangle and the Xiong’an New Area.

Another solution to the slower pace of road development the government has been working on is expanding the infrastructure beyond Beijing. The government is improving the roads connecting the Xiong’an New Area, and other neighboring regions such as Tianjin and Hebei.

The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Integrated Development Plan, approved in 2015, is a national strategy aimed at helping the three provincial-level governments redistribute resources and industries from the capital to nearby regions to achieve better growth and now, the government has added the Xiong’an New Area, which is located 100 kilometers southwest of Beijing.

The Xiong’an New Area is a centrally planned city designed to be larger than New York City. It represents the aspiration of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to relieve the capital of non-essential functions and reduce its population, while also creating an innovation hub for the surrounding region.

According to Ma Qing, President of Qingdao Urban Planning and Design Institute, the Xiong’an New Area is a major component of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region as it plays a crucial role in the reduction its population, relocation of non-capital functions such as certain manufacturing enterprises, large wholesale markets, headquarters of state-owned enterprises, universities, and hospitals from Beijing, while also creating an innovation hub for the surrounding region.

Traffic planners are hoping the creation of Xiong'an New Area will be a long-term aid in reducing Beijing traffic. (Photo by Robin Pierre/Unsplash)

Along with the relocation of non-capital functions in the Xiong’an New Area, the government has also created multiple centers of the government within the city and constructed Beijing’s sub-center in Tongzhou, a district in the southeast, where the administrative center of the government will be relocated, Ma added.

But this government plan to promote the dispersal of non-capital functions and the construction of multiple city centers will not be easy. Apart from administrative measures, Ma said, there are also market-oriented factors to consider. Including whether Beijing residents are willing to move their jobs and residences out of Beijing.

“The problem is how will Xiong'an attract residents,” Ma said.

“Beijing currently has the best educational resources in the country and the best hospitals,” he added. “Therefore, it would require the comprehensive development of public service facilities, such as schools and hospitals, to convince people to live there.”

So, what now?

Ma suggests that Beijing avoid focusing on minimizing traffic congestion but instead try to manage it within a reasonable range.

“Controlling traffic congestion means keeping it at a certain level rather than pursuing the lowest possible congestion index,” he said. “It is acceptable to manage congestion within a certain range.”

Wang explained that a certain level of congestion is a good thing because it encourages commuters to take public transportation. Reaching that delicate balance is the challenge. If the average speed of commuting vehicles is “excessively high,” he said, “It may create convenience and fast travel for individual drivers, decreasing the use of public transportation such as buses or subways.

“Especially in densely populated cities with limited road space and intensive infrastructure, it becomes challenging to accommodate such a large volume of traffic.”

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