Putting the brakes on private car purchasing equals turning off an economic growth engine, said Jenny Gu, a senior market analyst at global research firm J.D. Power and Associates. Gu noted that since Beijing red-lighted car registrations, many local auto dealers have run out of business and had to close their stores.
To keep the economic engine on, while reining in car use, some city planners choose to simply increase the price of driving.
In Shanghai, registering a private car means going through an auction and shelling out the equivalent of at least $6,000 for a license plate. Chongqing, a mountain city of some 30 million people in western China, wants to follow London's example and charge congestion fees. Drivers intent on going into busy areas during workdays must pay them.
At the same time, more cities practice another measure that has worked on many private car owners -- including analyst Gu -- in Shanghai. "Parking lots near my office are too expensive," Gu said, adding that she rides the subway to work, and so do her colleagues.
Waking up 'Sleeping City'
But what China's city planners really hope is that their citizens will not need to travel, not even by buses and subways.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, public transportation has left Chinese cities with a financial burden. In Beijing, each mile of subway costs more than $1 million, not to mention fare subsidies. And expansion projects take years to complete. Furthermore, even though cities have been replacing smoky buses with electric ones, environmental groups are still arguing that the electricity mainly comes from burning coal.
Reshuffling land use might be the solution, said Sumeeta Srinivasan, an urban planning expert at Harvard. Thanks to the high population density in Chinese cities, fitting office buildings, shopping malls and anything else that people need every day in proximity to where they live is a viable option. Then the Chinese can get it all by walking or by bike, she added.
Yet most Chinese cities were not designed in this way. Many dwellers have to flock into central areas of the city for work, study and leisure, creating "tidal commuting," said Ma Haibing, manager of the China Program at the Worldwatch Institute, a sustainable development research group based in Washington, D.C.
However, Ma continued, China's urban planners have realized the problem and have been adding missing features into neighborhoods.
Tian Tong Yuan, a Beijing suburb that was once nicknamed "Shui Cheng" -- literally, "Sleeping City" -- is a case in point.
When the sun rose, residents there traveled 12 miles to downtown Beijing to meet their daily needs; after dark, they traveled all the way back and attended the only attraction available -- sleeping at home.
But that has already faded into memory, said Zeng Jing, a 28-year-old resident of the suburb. Today, people there can go shopping at the neighboring Walmart, skate at a nearby indoor ice skating rink and catch up the latest movie hits at their local 3-D cinema, she added.
Asked whether she plans to buy a car, Zeng replied, smiling, "Yes. But we will use it only for weekend getaways."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500