In the Air Tonight...? Struggling to Impose Restrictions on Individual Car Use in Chinese Cities

By measures curbing private car use, China’s local authorities navigate between the need to protect the public good of clean air and growing individual desires for status and convenience.

Photo: Anna L. Ahlers

The number of new cars purchased for individual use in China increased exponentially over the last decade. These vehicles then enter the already crowded roads, need parking lots, etc. Municipal governments have a hard time regulating their cities’ traffic: not surprisingly, limiting individual car ownership for the sake of congestion control proves hardly feasible, while the expansion of public transport is an expensive, complex and long-term task. 

However, in recent years, since China started debating the smog plaguing its cities and after the central government launched its “battle against air pollution”, local authorities seem to be provided with a new handle: Appealing to the live-and-death issue of air quality control (the official formula used is that more than 30% of PM2.5 and PM10 pollution in cities is caused by traffic exhaust), curbing car use has become somewhat more legitimate and publicly accepted, according to studies and surveys. 

So far, beyond gradually scrapping old and heavily polluting vehicles, the cities of Beijing, Guangzhou, Guiyang, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Shijiazhuang, Shenzhen, and Tianjin have implemented a lottery and/or auction system cutting down on the licensing of new cars. Most of these cities are also restricting car driving by temporarily banning certain license plate numbers. Simultaneously, alternative or “greener” modes of individual motorized transportation, such as e-car rental, car pooling/sharing, are tested. First measurements seem to suggest that these steps already yield some effects in terms of both congestion and pollution reduction. However, public disgruntlement with the way these policies are implemented is graspable. 

In this research project we are studying the background, potentials and -especially- the style of China’s new airborne car policies. We describe the intricacies of the new car curbing policies, which heavily touch upon questions of fairness, inclusion and trust, for instance. We ask how city authorities ‘sell’ these policies that go against the interests of basically all city residents and businesses. How do they mediate between multiple stakeholders, including different government departments? But we also analyze the whole cycle of this high-risk policy that diverges a bit from our usual understanding of political mechanisms in China. Why have exactly (and only) these localities decided to curb car use, while heavy congestion and hazardous smog are troubling almost all larger cities in China, for example. Can we expect more Chinese cities to implement such measures in the near future – and how? 

Altogether, China’s new metropolitan car policies display the dilemma of vital environmental and community regulation policies, yet in an extreme example: the state coercively brings to bear the need of protecting the public good of breathing easy and healthy against growing individual desires for status and convenience in a rapidly transforming society. Hence, we claim that by way of this comprehensive policy analysis, a lot can be learned about China’s environmental governance, local variants of “authoritarian environmentalism”, and, not at least, social engineering with Chinese characteristics.

By Anna L. Ahlers, Yongdong Shen
Published June 15, 2015 2:09 PM - Last modified Nov. 22, 2017 2:37 PM