UPDATE: The New York Times reported Dec. 30 that after new car registrations were capped in China's capital city, "The biggest question in the car industry is whether more cities will follow Beijing’s example and impose restrictions on car registrations. Shanghai has restricted registrations for many years to prevent its ancient streets from becoming overwhelmed. As a result, it has one-third as many registered vehicles as Beijing, even though the populations of the two cities are similar."
The article, available here, says: "Gridlock is not yet a crippling problem in Guangzhou, or in many smaller cities across the country. City leaders are leery of discouraging car sales." It notes that Guangzhou, a sprawling commercial hub in the southeast, "had severe traffic jams a decade ago, but moved more quickly than Beijing to build a subway network that opens 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, of new lines each year. Traffic flows more smoothly in the city than in Beijing, although Guangzhou still had to impose restrictions on who could drive, based on license plate numbers, during the Asian Games, which just ended."
Can the world's most populous nation get around by car? China is finding it can't build roads fast enough, The New York Times reported Dec. 23:
"As of December, Beijing counted 4.7 million registered vehicles, with 2,000 new ones joining the clog each day. That is more than 700,000 new vehicles this year, which was up from 550,000 new vehicles last year, 376,000 in the preceding year and 252,000 the year before that.
"When the number reaches 6.5 million, traffic researchers calculate, the Beijing streets will be fully saturated. Some would say they already are: in June, a survey by I.B.M. of 20 global metropolises rated Beijing traffic as tied for the world’s worst, along with Mexico City."
"Twenty years ago, Beijing was a city of bicycles and shabby, charming alleys, a single limited-access highway tracing a lazy rectangle around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Today, five freeways girdle the city, eight more spoke from the suburbs to downtown, and the subway soon will stretch to 10 times its 1990 length."
“'Fifteen years ago, hardly anyone could afford a car. Today, everyone can,' said Wang Li Mei, secretary general of the China Road Transport Association. 'History just evolved in its own way. Each day we’re getting more cars, and each week we’re building more roads.'”
"The government has also tried to choke off center-city traffic, banning cars from downtown based on the last numbers on their license plates. Ostensibly, that made a dent in the weekday glut. And briefly, it may have. But in July, city officials said rush-hour traffic speed had dropped nearly 4 percent in one year, to an average of 15 miles per hour, and was headed for 9 miles an hour by 2015."
On Dec. 24 The Times followed up with a report that Huang Wei, Beijing's vice mayor for traffic management, had resigned "and was reassigned to remote western China, the exile destination of choice for those out of favor. The article, available here, said "the timing and site of his reassignment suggested that higher authorities were displeased with the surge in car buying."
Whether China is willing to adopt policies capable of stopping the rush of car-buying and the resulting congestion remains to be seen. So far, the country still seems to be in a compromise mode — doing a number of things to encourage other forms of transportation, yet still allowing automobiles to proliferate, though less rapidly than before.
The follow-up story said Beijing "would issue only 240,000 new license plates next year, a third of this year’s number, in the final version of a traffic-improvement plan that was first issued Dec. 13. The final plan envisions miles of underground highways, higher center-city parking fees, vastly expanded subway and bicycle networks, and a lattice of new downtown streets — as well as a cap on new vehicle registrations."