Beijing’s traffic authorities refer to the massive road jam in the city that Friday afternoon in 2010 as their “9/17”.

On September 17 that year, just ahead of the Moon Festival holidays, the city’s traffic network crashed. Vehicular movement on 140 roads, together stretching to over 1,000 km, stalled for nine hours.

There were far too many vehicles in relation to what the roads could hold: a large chunk of Beijing’s 4.5 million registered vehicles and tens and thousands from outside the city were out on the streets.

Traffic jams are a daily reality in Beijing, which currently has a human population of 21 million and a vehicle population of 5.2 million.

In 2010 alone, eight lakh new vehicles, mostly private cars, were registered in Beijing — the highest ever in a city anywhere in the world in a single year. From a city of cyclists, Beijing has ‘grown’ into the city with the largest number of new cars in the world. Call it the flip side of the Great Chinese Growth Story.


But the authorities are now working hard to check the vehicle population in a city known for its air pollution, smog and sand storms.

“The 9/17 experience forced the municipal government to impose strict restrictions on car ownership,” recalls Lin Minwei, a traffic planning expert at Beijing Transportation Research Centre. “The days of anyone with enough money could own new cars are gone.”

Starting from New Year’s Day in 2011, a car buyer could not just go and get a new car in Beijing.

You have to participate in a monthly lottery conducted by the authorities to get a car permit.

“You have to be extremely lucky to be a winner,” Minwei—who was in New Delhi recently to make a presentation on Beijing’s traffic at a workshop on ‘Transport and Climate’ organised by the Centre for Science and Environment—told this correspondent. The draw is taken every month for private individuals and every two months for companies. The authorities capped new licences at 2,40,000 in 2011, which was around one third of the previous year’s car purchase. The annual cap remains at 2.40 lakh.

Since those who fail to win new licences are automatically entered in the subsequent rounds of draws, the accumulated number of applications now to the monthly quota is now around 90 to 1. Which means: an applicant has just about one per cent chance to own a new car. There is a backlog of more than 1.5 million applications.

The qualifications for applying are tough too: one should have lived in Beijing for at least five years and paid municipal taxes; shouldn’t own another car; should have already possessed a driving licence.

Applications have to be made in the first week of each month, the draw of lotteries is on the 26th.


Lin Minwei said the lottery system was working fairly successfully as car population growth has fallen significantly. Beijing also has a law that restricts using private cars one day a week.

The road rationing is based on the final digit of the licence-plate number. Parking fee and fines for traffic offences have also been jacked up.

Other cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Guiyang have also capped car registrations through licence plate lotteries and auctions. In Shanghai, where auctions are in place, a new car licence can cost up to $10,000.

The city authorities raked in around $2 billion in 2011 and 2012 from the auctions. In Guangzhou, it is a combination of lottery and auction. Either way, getting a new car licence is both tough and expensive. The plush foreign cars whizzing along the gleaming roads of China can overwhelm an Indian visitor. The huge investments made in the road infrastructure and public transport are mind-boggling, too. The ring roads in Beijing are, at one level, about the great road networks across the country. But still, cars far outstep the road kilometers being built and renovated.

Comparisons between India and China often go off-tangent because the socio-economic-political realities differ widely. Per capita vehicle ownership in India is far lower than China’s and the vehicle population in Indian cities is smaller too. But the traffic woes in Indian cities are much worse than Chinese cities.


Take the case of Delhi. There are a total of 7.5 million registered vehicles, including motorcycles, cars and heavy vehicles. Every fifth household owns a car and 39 per cent of the households have motorcycles. The annual rate of increase in vehicle population is 7 per cent.

In Bangalore, there are 1.5 million registered vehicles, of which 69 per cent are motorcycles and 21 per cent cars. The rate of growth is around 10 per cent. In peak hours, travel speed slows down to below 15 per km per hour.

Kochi—though a Tier-2 city with narrow roads — has of late become a destination for premium cars. Most of the cars on the Kochi roads are less than three years old, indicating the booming new-car ownership in the city.

The three different cities have one thing in common: rising number of cars and deteriorating road infrastructure. Traffic jams in these cities may not be as huge and long as in Chinese cities, but traffic is relatively orderly there.

In India, traffic in any city is chaotic and disorderly, and hence the traffic woes are worse than China’s.

The annual influx of new cars, which outpaces economic growth of the country, adds to the already poor road infrastructure and traffic woes.

And, think about the huge oil import bill (94 per cent of India’s oil needs will have to be met by imports in 2030) which is driving up India’s current account deficit.

Shouldn’t we start thinking about a cap on new-car purchases? Should everyone with money be allowed to buy new cars? How about car rationing at least in Tier 1 cities?