As it debates the merits of the odd-even scheme to curtail declining air quality, Delhi can look to Beijing which has had a scaled-down road space rationing scheme permanently in effect all weekdays. The odd-even scheme in Beijing kicks in automatically when the highest haze level or ‘red haze alert’ is anticipated. Often compared with Delhi over poor air quality, Beijing, after the 2008 Olympics, implemented a traffic restriction policy that depends on the last number on a car’s registration plate.
The policy took effect October 11, 2008 and works like this: On each weekday, two groups of vehicles are not allowed to ply on Beijing’s roads according to the last number of licence plates (1 and 6 on Monday, 2 and 7 on Tuesday, 3 and 8 on Wednesday, 4 and 9 on Thursday and 5 and 0 on Friday). On weekdays, restricted cars are not allowed to drive within Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road between 7 am and 8 pm.
During the Olympic Games, Beijing also implemented a strict odd-even scheme. “A new vehicle traffic control measure has been carried out since October 11, 2008. In addition, when Beijing encounters severe haze weather the odd-and-even number restriction is implemented temporarily like during the Olympic Games in 2008,” said Pang Jun, Associate Professor, School of Environment and Natural Resources, Renmin University of China in Beijing.
The cost of violating the permanent restriction scheme is high — a fine of 200RMB (about Rs 2,000) and the addition of three points to the driving licence. After accumulating 12 points over one year, the licence is suspended. Such drivers must apply for a fresh licence and go through driving school again.
According to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, vehicle emissions account for over 30 per cent of PM 2.5 in Beijing’s air followed by coal burning at over 22 per cent. While the two numbers on weekday system is permanent, different action plans kick in, depending on the haze level forecast.
According to Tongfei, a Beijing resident and businessman, the permanent scheme was difficult to adjust to in the beginning. “Many car owners had rarely used public transport and then realised that once a week they had to. My car is not allowed on the roads on Mondays, so I have now learnt the subway and bus routes I need. It is not very difficult to manage,” he said. The system is dubbed Jinjing Zheng or Beijing Vehicle Pass.
The road restrictions also apply to cars registered outside Beijing, according to Pang. Owners of cars registered outside Beijing not only have to comply with rules, but cannot drive in the city for longer than seven days. “If a car is driven from neighbouring Tianjin city into Beijing, a permit is mandatory. After seven days, the car owner must drive out of Beijing again and get another permit. This permit costs RMB 50 or Rs 500,” Tongfei said.
When an orange alert — the second highest — was sounded between November 4 and November 8, all residents in Beijing received a text message. The text message stated that the orange alert plan would remain in effect, including a ban on trucks and construction. Beijing’s air quality plan is not only about controlling existing vehicles alone, but restricting new ones. Data shows Beijing has at least 558 lakh vehicles, of which more than three lakh are cars. Since 2011, the Beijing administration also instituted a lottery system for licence plates. While the step was taken then as a measure to ease congestion, the 2013 smog in Beijing, proved it was necessary to improve air quality.
According to state-run media, only 1 in 783 applicants can successfully register a car every week in Beijing. The city also hopes to limit vehicles within its limits to 60 lakh by the end of this year. The licence plate lottery system has been eased considerably for electric vehicles in a government bid to ratchet up sales of green vehicles in Beijing. Developing green traffic is a top agenda, Pang said. “Optimising the intercity transportation system and encouraging citizens to use public transport is high on the agenda to improve air quality.”
On controlling the total number of vehicles, Pang said Beijing, Tianjin and Langfang will simultaneously carry out the total control plan of vehicles and the plan of traffic restrictions based on the last digit of the licence plate. He said elimination of the yellow label car, improving fuel quality and promoting new energy vehicles were also steps being taken.
Asked if the existing road rationing scheme would continue, Pang said, “The government didn’t say this system will be permanent, but before we find a better method, we will continue to carry out this system.”