I'm in temporary housing. It's more spacious than my apartment in Hyde Park, with separate living and bed rooms, an adequate bathroom and what once was a kitchen. When I moved in, the once-kitchen looked like the photo on the left. The sink worked, but there was no stove (just a leftover hood). No table. Not even a microwave oven. Then one day I came home and the cabinets and sink were gone. The room was pretty much barren.
From time to time over the last four months, there have been small infrastructure improvements made to the room-- stuff like pipes and electrical boxes. But it's been pretty much useless to me, except for drying clothes.
The I came home today and there were all these new cabinets. The whole thing was put in during one business day while I was at work.
I know what you're thinking. The old cabinets were cooler looking. Yes, they were. But these are new! And new is best, right?
On Saturday, I posted an article about the regulatory effectiveness of the traffic police in Beijing and mentioned the new auto regulations. I now have a few English-language articles to link to and they'll explain the regulations better than I have.
(T)he construction of 280,000 parking spaces; 1,000 bike sharing stations; 348 miles of new subway track; 125 miles of new downtown streets (I’d like to see where these are going, considering 720,000 square meters of downtown Beijing is the Forbidden City); 23 miles of tunnels; 9 new transportation hubs; 3 congestion zones; and, my favorite, “the use of modern technology.” The city will also cut the number of new licenses by a third to 240,000 for 2011. The most controversial elements of the plan are the measures to levy congestion charges during peak hours and restrict car usage.
Danwei published the front page of Tuesday's Beijing Times, which had the banner headline announcing that vehicles registered outside Beijing are banned during rush hour, with a fine of about $15. The Jing is full of migrants from all parts of China, so this hits a lot of residents pretty hard-- and with very little notice.
“We have built many flyovers and expressways,” said Zhao Jie, a transportation expert at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design. “We have spent quite a lot of money on subways and bus lines, and Beijing probably has the lowest bus fares in the world. But the stimuli to car ownership are even more powerful.”
Duan Haizhu, a 26-year-old taxi driver, put it more elegantly during a recent crosstown crawl in his orange-and-brown Hyundai. “The speed of building roads is nowhere near the speed of people buying cars,” he said. “And people won’t stop buying cars.”
Right. The subway is extensive and costs 30 cents a ride. The buses are half that price and half again if you use a smart card. Yet, people keep buying cars. Why?
Well, the subway is indeed packed at rush hours. And with few special lanes for buses, they've been stalled in all that private vehicle traffic. Those are reasonable excuses, sure. But much of the impulse for driving is status. The dignity of walking & cycling needs some attention.
Monday morning, I noticed much less traffic as I made my way to work. The roads were empty and I jumped to the conclusion that the new regulations were the reason. And then I learned that while we Americans had decided to take off work on Friday, December 31, the Chinese national holiday was Monday, the third. Doh! So, Tuesday was actually the first day of the new regulations and indeed there seemed to be a noticeable change-- somewhat less congestion in my area, anyway. Ditto the last couple days. This might signficantly improve the travel times for buses, I'm thinking.
And then again, lotsa Beijingers ordered new cars in late December and are in the process of taking delivery...
In an era of transition, the new did not simply displace the old. Instead, old and new coexisted in a casual melange. Almost every mode of transport could be found on the streets of Beijing: automobiles, trolleys, rickshaws, bicycles, animal-drawn carts, and, on the backstreets, cargo-laden camels.
I got here too late for the camels! Until railroads were laid around 1900, much merchandise was brought into Beijing on camels via Silk Road routes.
The usually thoughtful Kevin Drum wandered into a debate he's not ready for, arguing with Matthew Yglesias over parking regulations. Yglesias is a resident of Washington, D.C., who, like me, generally believes government intervention has the burden of proof but willingly admits it has its place. Kevin Drum is a a liberal California suburbanite and an engineer at heart. But the biggest difference is that Yglesias has read Donald Shoup and Drum hasn't. Drum's argument lacks a scientific foundation.
Requirements in cities and suburbs vary, but here in the burbs the general idea behind parking regulations is to make businesses pay for their own externalities instead of fobbing them off on other people...
Now, if your goal is simply to reduce the amount of parking so that it's a pain in the ass and people will drive less, that's fine. It's a pretty roundabout way of doing it, but whatever. But if your goal is to match parking spaces to cars, then it's simply not true that property owners are the best judges of how much parking is needed. Like profit maximizers anywhere, they'll do their best to provide as little parking as possible and instead try to free ride on the parking that other people have already created and paid for.
If I live in the suburbs and "own" the parking space in front of my house, do I have to park a car there or can I use this resource for something I really want? Can I build a shed there, for instance? Could I transfer this resource to someone else, say the business on the corner, in exchange for something I want? Why does the city insist that I can only use this for cars, my cars, when I have a perfectly good driveway? Is that the largest possible benefit of this resource? Is it the best possible use of that space from the point of view of either the city or myself?
There are two kinds of people in this world*-- those who've read Donald Shoup's writings and come away convinced that parking should pay for itself and those who haven't read Shoup. Seriously, I'm still waiting to find a coherent argument against Shoup's thinking by someone who's read him. American communities have devoted huge resources to parking without a thorough cost benefits analysis. Shoup breaks new ground by examining the issue in both a theoretical and scientific manner.
I really hate to be rude about this, but we Shoupistas basically think the other side is just uninformed (or greedily defending a middle-class entitlement that promotes the destruction of the planet). To us, the un-read are like global warming deniers. So, please read Shoup. If you do and can come up with thoughtful critiques, I'll honestly be happier than I am now. I don't enjoy calling the other side in an argument "uninformed", but what else fits?
If Drum had read The High Cost of Free Parking's chapter concerning how most cities arrive at their minimum parking space regulations, he wouldn't have argued what he did above. If you're going to defend civil engineers' regulations, you should be ready to explain how they arrived at their numbers. When they set the miniumum number of spaces mandated for a barber shop, do the parking estimators actually go visit a reasonable sample size of local barbershops in various neighborhoods and count the free parking spots typically used? No, according to Shoup (.pdf), they usually consult the book Parking Generation by the Instutute of Transportation Engineers. The book does not suggest parking minimums, by the way; it simply contains data. But here's Shoup on what it measures:
Because parking is free for 99 percent of all automobile trips in the United States, parking must be free at most of the ITE survey sites. Parking generation rates therefore typically measure the peak demand for parking observed in a few surveys conducted at suburban sites that offer ample free parking and lack public transit.
And even if the data were localized and representative, political machinations come into play. These regulations are made operable by politicians and until recently officials were likely to hear only one type of complaint. A home owner or an existing business complained about customers of a newer and/or successful business parking in a space that the folks with seniority considered their own, even though all curbside parking spaces are owned by the city, available first-come, first-serve to all. (And when the government gives away valuable resources free of charge, first-come, first serve, what happens to that resource?)
Until recently, few stood up and complained that this middle-class entitlement of municipally-provided parking spaces had a downside beyond the revenue costs (which can be enormous and inhibiting for development). Because of parking regulations, our neighborhoods are less densely-populated and contain fewer amenities we can walk to. That's an expensive externality in my opinion, although it's probably dwarfed by the externalities associated with America's dependence on gasoline-powered automobiles-- foreign trade deficits, Middle East wars to protect our supply of oil and all that environmental harm.
So, read Shoup. Once you have, I predict you'll agree that Shoup's description of a world with market-priced parking is the right goal. And then you can help us with the heavy-lifting-- transitioning from this imperfect world to Shoup's utopia, pulling the appropriate political levers without coming off like the cultists we are.
(*There are two kinds of people in this world-- those who divide people into two groups and those who don't.)
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers considered Beijing's natural surroundings quite pleasant; in summer and fall, the city seemed park-like. The view from the Western Hills toward the city was a sea of green, interrupted only by a few yellow-tiled rooftops peeking out from the foliage. Looking west from the Imperial City during his 1849-1850 stay, the Russian envoy Kovalevsky enjoyed the "remarkable view, bright, shining, enchanting... Before us rose the massive indented walls, surrounding a series of palaces" under the "wonderful sky, clear, blue, transparent... and the clear aromatic air."
In his book When a Billion Chinese Jump, Jonathan Watts argues that China has become a dumping ground for the west's polluting industries and the country's bountiful supplies of coal present an all too tempting energy source. The human misery wrapped up in coal extraction and polluting factories will undoubtedly fill volumes. Still, I can understand how China came to have those problems; I'm less understanding of their embrace of the American disease, this idea that a middle-class lifestyle depends on owning a private automobile. Just as our young are increasingly rejecting auto dependence, Chinese cities are crowding out bicycles. When the air quality index in Beijing goes "crazy bad", I think we know what to blame.
And yet, Beijing has done a damned good job on trees. Here we have a rapidly-growing city where acquiring land to build residential properties can be quite difficult, yet trees are protected. Towers rise above the trees, sure, but in between the towers are lots of trees. I can't think of any area of Beijing as big as Chicago's Loop that's as devoid of trees.
In the photo to the right, the strip of green just on the other side of Zhongguancun Street is where subway line #4 runs. Above it, they could have built parking lots or widened the road, but instead we have trees.
The photo at the top of this article was taken in Jingshan Park, right in the middle of the city. You're looking northwest toward our Center. Were I to walk in a straight line northwest, I might have to cross four lakes: Beihai, Qianhai, Houhai and Xihai. And soon I'd start hitting University campuses every so often, some nice and some just ok. Beyond the Center, though, would be Peking University, which is drop-dead gorgeous. The Summer Palace is further west and the Old Summer Palace north. Both Peking U and the palaces have lakes, too. After that is the Botannical Gardens and then you hit the Fragrant Hills.
On clear days, Beijing is still a sea of green, albeit a city with towers rising thru the trees.
Here I am at the Great Hall of the People during opening festivities in September. Behind me is an all-percussion traditional band that was just about to start playing as friends of the Center filed out from the main lecture hall and took their seats for dinner.
My job during the event was to hide behind a screen like the one you see and press the space bar on my laptop so a video clip would play when the University's President finished his remarks.
The Great Hall of the People sits just west of Tian'anmen Square and hosts the National People's Congress every year. I got to go behind the scenes there to check out the Hall's audio-visual set-up, an honor that few Chinese have, so I feel very grateful for the opportunity.
The vice-mayor of Beijing whose portfolio included traffic has departed for Xinjiang as carbuyers rush to register new cars in advance of 2011 regulations. While China Daily, the government's English language newspaper, touts the new curbs on government cars as well as plans to build more parking spaces and improve public transportation, the real story here is a new set of regulations limiting personal vehicles, which I'm going to take a stab at explaining even though I haven't yet found a suitable online source to link to.
But first, let me try to describe the regulatory environment in China in a couple paragraphs. The judicial branch of government consists of people who have a wide range of levels of competence, but the entire branch-- judges, administrative regulators and police-- is still an arm of the Communist Party. This lack of an independent judiciary means that enforcement of rules & regulation relies more on power relationships than on letter of the law. (I know that's a little true about the United States or any other country, but it's an order of magnitude truer in China.) A powerful person can get away with breaking a lot of rules as long as s/he doesn't offend another powerful person.
And there are a lot of rules & regulations-- so many that the police could never enforce them all, so they concentrate on answering complaints. We refer to them as "peace officers" in the U.S., but that's a much more suitable description of the Chinese police who spend a lot of time seeking compromises between aggrieved parties (like folks in traffic accidents). The police turn a blind eye toward small infractions like stickering sidewalks or unlicensed streetside vending. However, they're notorious for enforcing one specific regulation designed to decrease the volume of traffic: one weekday each week, dependent upon your license plate number, you can't drive that car. One day a week, an expensive machine sits in your parking garage unusable.
In 2011, Beijing (and I've only heard this word of mouth) will limit new municipal car registrations to about a third the number issued last year. Hence, December saw a surge of new car buying. Are the new regulations enforceable? People believe the police will be able to spot drivers lacking a suitably-numbered Beijing license plate.
Is there a more market-oriented solution available? Yes, I believe so and unfortunately I have to throw the most hurtful insult possible at Beijingers: Shanghai handles this better. In Beijing, car registrations cost about US$80. Shanghai charges US$6800 per plate. Roads are clogged, the air is polluted and something has to be done to limit traffic. The choice is between highly disruptive & wasteful regulations or fees that can then be plowed into infrastructure like new roads and public transportation.