Road Rage in Beijing: An Update on the Car Craze

March 28, 2011 § 5 Comments

You’ve heard of road rage.  But Beijing, with its attempt to cut back on car ownership and ease the congestion that frustrates the millions of drivers in the capital city, may be generating a new strain of anti-social disorder, “off-the-road rage.”

As you may remember, Beijingers bought cars in record numbers last year, more than 800,000 units, increasing the total number on the roads there to nearly 5 million and making Beijing, together with Mexico City, the top city in the world for “commuter pain” (IBM commuter pain survey).

By December of 2010, Beijing officials concluded that the car-buying frenzy, though good for China’s economy, had to be reined in; the city’s traffic and congestion were out of control, as was the dirty exhaust being spewed into the Beijing air—by idling cars especially.  With the efficiency a one-party state can muster, Beijing declared that in 2011 car sales would be limited to 20,000/month (17,600 for individual car buyers, the rest reserved for commercial or government use) or 240,000 for the year.  And to ensure fairness, the government would institute a lottery system.  During the first week of each month, individuals could enter their name in lottery; at the end of the month, 17,600 lucky entries would be drawn—with the winners winning the right to purchase a car. (On the late December day that Beijing officials announced its plans for 2011 more than 30,000 residents of Beijing rushed out to auto dealerships to buy a car before the lottery system kicked in.)

In January of 2011, 210,000 people entered their names in the lottery; 17,600 of them won licenses.  That left a lot of disappointed entrants (192,400).  Their names were automatically rolled over into the February lottery, along with the 137,045 new applicants.  So while January’s lottery was competitive, February’s was still more so: 17,600 out of more than 300,000.  The odds of winning had worsened significantly: January’s 1 in 11 had fallen to 1 in 17.  Now, this month, there’s March Madness: including the rollovers from the January and February contests, there are about 400,000 total applications, putting the odds of winning at something like 1 in 23.

It also means that by the end of March you’ll have 380,000 disappointed Beijingers waiting hopefully each month for their name to be drawn.  And, of course, this number will only grow larger with each passing month.

I’m not sure that traffic congestion in Beijing has noticeably improved.  But I am pretty sure that as the odds of winning the car lottery plummet, the frustration among some of the repeatedly unsuccessful entrants will mount.  Give them a few more disappointing months and their rage—as a consequence of being unable to take to the roads—may be no less than the rage experienced by some drivers caught in snarling traffic and unable to escape the roads.T

Think of it as the yang of “on-the-road rage” giving birth to the yin of “off-the-road rage.”

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