EMBARQ China helps city of Beijing prepare for low emission zone (LEZ) and congestion pricing implementation
In June, researchers from EMBARQ China and engineers from the Beijing Transportation Research Center (BTRC) visited London, United Kingdom to learn from its successes with low emission zone (LEZ) and congestion pricing strategies. The group met with professionals from the Department for Transport, Transport for London, IBM, and other agencies and consulting firms to learn from London’s experience implementing and operating one of the world’s most successful low emission zones and congestion pricing schemes.
Low emission zones help to relieve traffic congestion and improve air quality by restricting access to certain roads or areas of a city for heavily polluting vehicles, while congestion pricing imposes a fee on all vehicles that wish to use designated roads during peak hours. These measures, widely implemented in Europe but less common in developing cities, complement each other to reduce the number of cars on the road, which yields improvements in traffic safety, air quality, and GHG emissions.
Confronting air quality and traffic congestion challenges in Beijing
China’s rapid urbanization and motorization has resulted in steadily increasing air pollution and traffic congestion. The transport sector alone currently accounts for about 26% of the country’s total GHG emissions, and is expected to be the most rapidly growing source of air pollution over the next 10 years. Beijing’s current vehicle fleet already numbers 5.4 million, the highest of any Chinese city. The city has deployed car use restriction policies and vehicle registration quotas in order to relieve traffic congestion and air pollution, but more is necessary in order to protect the health and safety of the city’s 11.5 million residents.
To achieve this, Beijing’s municipal government has proposed a combined low emission zone and congestion pricing policy and included it in its “Work Plan for Vehicle Emission Control 2013-2017” in October 2013. With this policy in place, Beijing will expand its restriction on vehicle use and limit total vehicle ownership in the city to six million by 2017.
Beijing weighs low emission zone and congestion pricing policies
The first low emission zone was implemented in Tokyo in 2003. Since 2006, LEZs have also become common across Europe, in part due to the European Union’s health-based air quality standard. But despite being home to the world’s largest urban population and the site of some of the most pressing traffic congestion and air pollution-related public health challenges, no Chinese cities have implemented low emission zones or congestion charging.
In fact, the discussion around low emission zones and congestion pricing has become quite controversial in Beijing due to residents’ aspirations to car ownership and the potential economic impacts of such policies. On one hand, both city leaders and the public have recognized the significant health threats of air pollution and the economic loss caused by crippling traffic congestion. Policymakers have vowed to seek and implement solutions to control vehicle emissions, which the public, at a conceptual level, seems to agree with. In practice, however, the details of policies and economic measures like low emission zones and congestion charging have raised concerns over social equity. Many believe the low emission zone and congestion charging schemes will privilege the rich, who can afford to buy expensive clean energy vehicles and pay extra out-of-pocket charges to drive in the city.
Given the potential benefits of these measures – and the urgency of Beijing’s need for a more sustainable path to urban growth – the challenge becomes how to implement a policy that will balance the interests of different stakeholders.
What can Beijing learn from London?
Political support, clear public outreach and communications, and technology have all enabled the success of London’s congestion pricing policy. These clear steps can help Beijing and other cities develop comprehensive strategies for implementing their own low emission zone and congestion pricing measures to improve urban environments.
First, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and his administration prioritized congestion pricing as one of the flagship policies of Livingstone’s first term. Their public outreach strategies – like in-person demonstrations in the areas most likely to be impacted by the policies, frequent television and newspaper discussion and advertisements, and meetings with different stakeholders and the public – also played an important role in building citizen support and awareness of the new policy.
These efforts have paid off. Beginning in 2003, London’s £5 charge reduced the amount of traffic entering central London during peaks hours by roughly 20% in only three years. Transport for London also releases the performance, operation, and finance of congestion pricing regularly, helping to justify the need for congestion pricing and fostering long-term public support.
EMBARQ China partners for a sustainable, healthy Beijing
Incorporating best practices from London, EMBARQ China is working closely with the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport (BMCT) to develop a step-by-step framework for the successful implementation of Beijing’s low emission zone and congestion charging schemes.
First, EMBARQ China will assist the BMCT to develop a set of integrated guidelines to introduce low emission zone and congestion charging in Beijing by expanding institutional capacity, economic and regulatory policies, vehicle emission standards, and planning and design principles. Secondly, EMBARQ China will support BMCT to develop public outreach strategies and engage citizens during the rollout of the low emission zone and congestion charging policies. Finally, EMBARQ China will help to develop monitoring tools the BMCT can use to measure the reductions in GHG and air pollutant emissions as a result of the new policies.