Don’t be Shanghaied! China has started down the carbon cutting highway

Car ownership is tightly regulated in Chinese cities such as Shanghai. Dr Matthew Burke

How often do we hear the argument that Australia’s moves to limit carbon emissions will achieve nothing unless China finally takes some action?

This fails to recognise that China’s city mayors, the government officials who are actually responsible for urban transport, are enacting the most vigorous of policies available to curb growth in automobile ownership and limit carbon emissions from the urban transport sector.

To say China is doing nothing is clearly ignorance or deceit.

As I suggested recently in The Conversation, Australians would likely vote anyone proposing restrictions or price increases on motoring out of office. Yet strong measures are possible in the Chinese political system and are being enforced to create very liveable and equitable cities.

Shanghai has been especially proactive on this issue. At around 18 million people, depending on where you draw its boundaries, it is similar in size to Australia’s entire urban population, Australia being one of the most urbanised countries on earth.

Sure, Shanghai has built massive freeway networks and has retrofitted its old core to suit high-speed car travel.

They host F1 Grand Prix, run car shows and there are ostentatious displays of luxury car ownership. But despite exceptional wealth creation and the spectacular growth of the middle and upper classes, car ownership itself remains very low in the city, compared to other Asian mega-cities. Why?

Faced with exploding car registrations and a paucity of road space, the municipal government borrowed ideas from Singapore.

The key policy measure is essentially a ‘cap and trade’ system. The number of available car registrations is capped at a low level by regulation.

Prospective car users have to bid in an auction (‘trade’) for the right to register a vehicle. It costs around RMB50,000 (A$7,000) minimum just to secure a permit, in addition to the usual taxes and charges.

The limits prevent many in the middle class from pursuing car ownership. Unlike Australia, upper middle-class households in the outer suburbs tend to have only one car.

There has to be a trade-off to allow for this repression to be accepted by the populace. As in Singapore, this comes in the form of infrastructure and service delivery to create a world class public transport system, including the world’s largest (and possibly cleanest) metro system.

The system keeps expanding and there will be 20 lines by 2020.

Buses are plentiful and air-conditioned (though crowded in peak hour). Bicycle provision remains good. And regulation encourages rather than prevents the use of electric bicycles and scooters, which some truly tragic legislation in Australia prevents, much to our detriment.

Perhaps the clearest indicator is that few children are driven to school by car in Shanghai, even in the middle and outer suburbs where car ownership is higher.

The results are stark between the Chinese cities that have followed this approach and those that haven’t.

After three decades of economic progress, in 2008 per capita car ownership in Shanghai was almost a third that of Beijing, where only very recently have the authorities adopted the same measures.

Bike and e-bike use has remained relatively steady in Shanghai since 2005 while it has plummeted in Beijing.

Professor Pan Haixiao of Tongji University, who is visiting Brisbane in September, has reported on this for the OECD recently, demonstrating just how advanced sustainable transport policy is in Shanghai, as well as highlighting the remaining challenges.

China could do more on other fronts, but next time you hear someone in the carbon debate say “Until China does something, Australia should sit on its hands”, ask yourself whether we should halve the number of car registrations available in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide like the Chinese are doing.

Would we be willing to give up half our cars, as the population of Shanghai effectively has, and that of Beijing is starting to experience?

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