By on October 21, 2009

China’s capital Beijing officially has 17m people. Unofficially, it’s guesstimated to be closer to 20m. By the beginning of next year, Beijing will be host to more than 4m automobiles, China Daily reports. Back in 1997, Beijing barely had 1m cars. Now, one in 4 Beijingers has a car.

Every day, more than 1000 cars are being registered in Beijing. After the October holidays, 10,000 needed to be registered and caused a giant traffic jam around the Beijing version of the DMV.

Come next year, Beijing’s car park (and during rush hour, that’s what it usually is) will have grown by 1 million in only two-and-a-half years. It took cities like Tokyo 12 years to grow a million cars. Katie Melua’s “Nine million bicycles in Beijing” is definitely a myth. Beijing’s motorists on the other hand will readily confirm that between 8 and 10 in the morning and 4 and 6 in the afternoon, all of Beijing’s cars take to the streets.

400,000 cars in total will be newly registered this year. By 2015, 5.5m cars will be on Beijing’s roads. But only if the projections of Liu Xiaoming, director of the Beijing municipal committee of communications are correct. He thinks, the numbers will drop to 300,000 new registrations in the coming years. He’s not saying how the growth might be capped. In Shanghai for instance, there is only a set number of new license plates available (between 5000 and 6000 a month) and they are auctioned off. A plate costs more than a small car: In January, the average price for a license plate was $4,388 per plate – and that was considered a recession-time bargain.

Beijing so far did not resort to such harsh measures. Jia Yuanhua, a transportation professor at Beijing Jiaotong University thinks the government should control the number of cars, but it won’t:

“The government would not restrict the purchase of cars because they need to support the growth of the industry and increase GDP during the financial crisis,” Jia Yuanhua said.

There is yet another reason: Most large Chinese car companies, and the Chinese side of most joint ventures, are state owned. The city of Beijing has its own car company, BAIC, joint venture partner of Daimler and Hyundai. You won’t shoot yourself in the foot by limiting your market, don’tcha? The Shanghai government owns a big chunk of a much larger car company, SAIC, joint venture partner of GM and Volkswagen, and that didn’t keep them from administering expensive birth control to their car community. Ah, the inscrutable East.

Be it as it may, Beijing’s residents think something might be afoot. Which prompts them to buy even more cars as long as they can. Ever since Beijing enacted a byzantine rule that the cars must stay at home on one day of the week, depending on the last digit of the license plate, second car ownership swelled.

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28 Comments on “Beijing Drowns In Cars...”

  • avatar

    I think Mexico city does something similar with license plate/stay home once per week…I remember hearing about it when I was there.

    Pretty weird.

    So the solution is pretty much to have one car for each day of the week, no ?

    Or at least one license plate for each day of the week that you can swap on/off.

  • avatar

    I’ve lived in China on business.

    Beijing and Shanghai are not designed very well for automobiles. They are designed primarily for bicycle traffic.

    Parking a car there is a NIGHTMARE because the streets aren’t well lit in most areas and the streets are too tight. They don’t even have parking meters in most places – nor do they have proper parks for cars. Cars there tend to park in alleys next to buildings, but that can get messy and cluttered really quick.

    Contrasted with NY or a city like Chicago, our entire country is geared towards cars, parking and car maintenance.

    When I return to China I’m going to use a company 2010 Lacrosse because China’s cars SUCK. The Mei Tian’s and Dong Feng’s are small interior horrible driving crap and the most popular car there is still a Volkswagon Santana.

  • avatar

    This has been predicted for quite a while. As we all try to save 2-5% on our emissions over here, there is a whole world “over there” just waking up to the fact that they too can have their own personal isolation box in which to travel. As more and more people over there reorganize their finances to purchase these previous luxuries, anything we try to do on our end to save on emissions is negated. I believe it was 60 minutes that did the math on it. Basically if just 10% of people over there realize they “need” (bracketed for irony) a car, the planet is screwed. We’re already circling the toilet, this is going to be the second flush to make sure we all go down.

  • avatar

    Very interesting.

    A professional colleague in Wuhan bought a car to share with 4-5 other families in their garage-less 4 year-old building. There are massive traffic problems there too, well at least recently. I was there in 2004 and it was bad enough.

    We went everywhere by bus and train – it was the quickest method by far. None of the “locals” seemed the least bit interested in cars, or suffered transport issues they felt “required” a car.

    He thinks, in the extremely dense cities car sharing will become popular (if it’s even affordable and/or necessary transport wise).

    Another example; there are about 520,000 cars in Hong Kong (relatively wealthy), a reasonable infrastructure for cars, and a population of ~7million. What’s that 74 cars per thousand people? It’s traffic chaos there and that was last year! We walked.

  • avatar

    If that trend continues, soon a bicycle will be the best way to get around Beijing. It still has nice wide bicycle lanes separated from the cars on every major road (or at least did when I was there in 2006)

  • avatar
    bill h.

    Not to mention that all those cars need to be fueled to run (or at the least, to sit in traffic idling).

    Perhaps there’s a silver lining in all the end-run oil deals Beijing is making in the Persian Gulf….gives the US fewer options on what Muslim country to invade next.

  • avatar


    Another example; there are about 520,000 cars in Hong Kong (relatively wealthy), a reasonable infrastructure for cars, and a population of ~7million. What’s that 74 cars per thousand people? It’s traffic chaos there and that was last year! We walked.

    Also in Hong Kong cabs are so plentiful and ridiculously cheap, there’s no real good reason to own a car, IMO. I did find that city to be very pedestrian unfriendly, lots of sidewalks that suddenly dead-end, etc.

  • avatar

    I was lucky enough to visit China and Beijing this summer.

    We also went everywhere by bus, train (subway and inter-city train) and, sometimes, taxi.

    Another city we visited had a minivan shared-taxi arrangement where the minivans run on some difficult to understand* mix of fixed and variable routes that worked OK, once you got the hang of it. I’ve seen arrangements like this in other countries, too.

    I can’t imagine putting up with a car under these circumstances. Beijing could put people to work, increasing GDP, and make the city more convenient with additional subway lines (or a monorail system) and, perhaps, some express lines.

    Otherwise a short-sighted policy of encouraging car ownership for economic growth is just going to choke the city to death.

    * – For the foreigner who does not speak Chinese (me), many things were difficult to understand. However, the subway was pretty easy, the city busses somewhat less so but still workable. When taking a cab, having written instructions or address was usually helpful.

  • avatar

    This more than anything else is reason to believe that we are headed for an environmental apocalypse. There is nothing to stop the tide. We’re all lucky to live at the peak of civilization. It’s all downhill from here my friends.

  • avatar

    “China’s capital Beijing officially has 17m people. Unofficially, it’s guesstimated to be closer to 20m.”

    Illegal immigrants?

    “In Shanghai for instance, there is only a set number of new license plates available (between 5000 and 6000 a month) and they are auctioned off. A plate costs more than a small car:”

    Please, don’t give anyone in Washington or our state capitals any ideas!

  • avatar

    Looks like the view from Bertel’s window–on a rare clear day.

    I found the subway the quickest way to get around. But it’s incredibly crowded at rush hour, and low status. If you’re on the subway, people assume you’re too poor to afford your own car or even a cab.

  • avatar

    China has a 1 child policy in the urban areas, maybe it’s time for them to restrict car sales.

    In Tokyo you cannot register a car unless you have proof of a parking space for it. These are usually leased separately for 300 dollars a month or so.

    In Singapore there are limited number of car registrations available. Called COE or certificate of eligibility, the COE can cost many times more than the car. Imagine paying 10K for a 20 year old Accord because it has the COE.

    Korea went through this in the 80’s. In 1987, 750 cars a day were being registered in Seoul. It choked the roads off. Eventually people learned to go without cars again but it still is a huge problem, for THEM over THERE.

    Not in my backyard. I have a two car garage, relatively open roads, and most times no traffic jams. Maybe that’s one reason these Asian countries refer to America as the Beautiful Land in their own languages.

  • avatar

    One of the main reasons I moved out of Chicago was to have clear (local) roads and a 2.5 car garage.

    I’m glad we don’t (yet) have the problems these other countries are having with car/space.

  • avatar

    Illegal immigrants? Would you believe it – yes. Illegal Chinese immigrants. You need a permit to live and work in places like Beijing or Shanghai, and the way it is being explained to me, a Guatemalan stands a better chance to be permanently admitted to the USA than someone cfrom the provinces to Beijing.

    Michael Karesh: The air drastically improved since you were here. Pretty much any day I can see the mountains. We now have stars over Beijing! Making Euro 4 mandatory in Beijing, and taking the polluters off the street definitely helped.

    Beijing and Shanghai are not designed very well for automobiles. They are designed primarily for bicycle traffic. I wouldn’t call a system of six ring roads, the sixth one 170 miles long, and an ever growing network of highways “designed for bicycle traffic.” Bicycles are definitely a dying breed in Beijing. Even scooters or motorcyles are discouraged. The city stopped issuing any new plates for new motorcycles in January 1998.

  • avatar

    I was in Beijing in the early 90s, right as the economic policies that resulted in the global behemoth of today were being implemented.

    I went everywhere on a bicycle. It was a joy exploring a large city since it was soooo easy to get around. No parking hassles. It was a case study in how to make a big city bike friendly.

    You can’t go home again. Sigh.

  • avatar

    $4800 for a license plate. Chairman Mao must be rolling over in his grave. Long live capitalism!

  • avatar

    I was in Beijing in the early 90s

    Same here. There seemed to be literally no private vehicles at all. Got around by the standard black bicycle or by (charging) into the crowded buses. I remember seeing a big billboard with ‘modern Beijing’ cars, skyscrapers, people in fashionable clothes etc, and laughing at it.

    There was still lots of pollution, homes were heated with some sort of cheap coke that filled the city in winter with grey-brown smog.

  • avatar

    The worst US cities in terms of congestion are LA, NYC, and Chicago. About 70 billions of dollars of productivity wasted in lost hours. Whole lives are wasted, as people don’t have free time to spend after the long work day.

    No matter the technological awe-inspiring marvel that is today’s car, its economical and social burden is very taxing. Bought shining new for a hefty sum, it quickly depreciates, robbing the owner along the way with insurance, maintenance, and fueling costs. Leaving behind nothing but debt.

    The object of love and affection of your typical right-winger “individualist”, the car is ironically the most state-subsidized thing there ever was, as the car is the best example of free-riding welfare. Constantly wanting more and more of land-grabbing infrastructure to accomodate its inefficient self, constantly wanting more and more in guarding the sheiks and bombing brown people, if necessary, to secure oil for its thirst, the car nannies the huge bureacracies, the standing armies, and the banks – all with their hands firmly in your pockets. The problem the cars generate are addressed with more government intervention, more subsidies, more fascism.

    It is no wonder that in general, except in the developing economies, the car culture is on the (permanent?) decline. I doubt the over-indebted Uncle Sam now has the breath to expand the infrastructure necessary to push car ownership forward. Already Japan does not care about cars, Europe is very close.

  • avatar

    # Omnifan :
    October 21st, 2009 at 11:12 am

    $4800 for a license plate. Chairman Mao must be rolling over in his grave. Long live capitalism!

    Chairman Mao doesn’t technically have a grave. His corpse is preserved and on public display in TianAnMen Square.

  • avatar

    “$4800 for a license plate. Chairman Mao must be rolling over in his grave. Long live capitalism!”

    No, that is not capitalism, that is a monopoly, in this case a government controlled one.

  • avatar


    I sorry you don’t appreciate the good things the automobile has given us, from transportation freedom, to quick the movement of goods and people (to work and even to emergency medical care), to freedom for minorities to get out of their ghettos and mix with the mainstream, and to be able to move about without government knowledge of our comings and goings. But if it distresses you so much please get rid of your car (if you have one) and buy a bicycle and a pass for public transit. Enjoy the ride on the train next to the person who hasn’t bathed lately, or the person who is sick and coughing all over you.

  • avatar

    It’s amazing that so many people persist in buying and driving cars when it’s perfectly obvious that makes them miserable. I blame Jefferson and his silly notion about the individual’s “pursuit of happiness.” The state knows best. Back to rickshaws!

    Rada, did you mean to send your post to the People’s Weekly World and by mistake sent it to TTAC? Most of us folks rather like cars and the freedom they provide.

  • avatar


    in the past you could grow the car culture using the pockets of others. But now it’s even impossible to do that – the Jubilee Highway stretch in LA costs $150 – for a tiny stretch, really.

    Face it, the only way you guys can continue driving if the country is placed in a permanent and wasteful “stimulus” mode.

  • avatar

    The Chinese love expensive gaudy cars, too. I remember traveling from Shenzhen City to a small village north of Guangzhou, in Guangdong Province, via something called a Toyota Crown. The Chinese are not friendly with Japanese, unless you give them a Toyota, then all’s forgotten. Anyhow, the Crown appeared to be in the Lexus mode–wall to wall leather with some kind of blond burled wood paneling over every interior surface. As I recall, the thing parked itself, and had a rear view camera for reverse assist. Very modern. God knows what something like this cost in China. Chinese are very…um…adventurous drivers, to say the least.

  • avatar

    @ Rada

    I think you’re spot on.

    It’s depressing that developing countries are “told” that the car is the path to wealth and provides the “best” of personal freedoms.

    Who tells them that? The car manufacturers.

  • avatar

    Rada forgot to mention Washington, DC and environs, but I’m not here to help his argument.

    The car only works well with a certain density level. For example, traffic in the Detroit area isn’t bad, and as the MSA loses population, it’ll only get better. Traffic in Cleveland only stinks because Ohio people can’t drive in traffic with any sort of skill level for judging speeds and merges (everyone apparently moved to the cities from farm country last week). Los Angeles, Washington, Seattle, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are all high-density areas.

  • avatar
    Endless Feeder Road

    What in the crap is with the right-angle onramps in that pic? It looks like something out of Sim City.

  • avatar

    Traffic is not too bad in major areas IF you (can) shift your schedule.

    My 34 mile (27 highway, 7 mile city) commute to Chicago from near the Wi line is about 40 min if I leave the house at 5-5:15am. after 5:15am there is progressively more traffic.

    The way home is a bit worse…typically entering city streets at 3pm, I am home by 3:50-4:30. (and that is during 30+ miles of construction on my route home…I expect once they finish adding a lane, it will be better)

    Or I could pay 2x-3x as much for a smaller house, no garage, higher taxes, and everything else that comes with corrupt Chicago.

    I prefer to try to enjoy my commute (at least the morning part) since I just like to drive anyhow…

    The real downside is social life. Once you normally wake up at 4am and are in bed by 8:30am-9pm, alot of “after work” and “weekend” activities with people far away are not doable.

    For example, I have friends who live in Joliet (71 miles away) and I _have_ to be leaving their house at 7pm or so to be home before I consider myself too tired to drive….

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