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Soon You'll Need a Parking Spot Before You Can Buy a Car in Beijing

Officials expect the plan to reduce congestion in the crowded city.

poeloq / Flickr

Usually you buy a car and worry about where to park it later, but Beijing wants to put that process in reverse. Deputy Mayor Zhang Yankun reportedly announced that next year residents will have to show proof they have access to a parking spot before they can purchase a vehicle. The plan hopes to address the city’s extreme parking shortage in the face of soaring car-ownership.

Why now?

Beijing has already taken measures to reduce driving and congestion, awarding licenses via a lottery system since 2011. But the city remained home to nearly 5.6 million cars by the end of 2014, with the total number of parking spots estimated at just 2.9 million. That mismatch has led to a mad scramble for spaces that creates some terrible traffic congestion; here’s Bloomberg Business:

Parking has become a problem in Beijing, and in many Chinese cities, as new office and shopping developments draw more traffic to the city center than there is parking space. Motorists often park illegally on side roads, or in residential compounds, blocking traffic and causing heated disputes.

The city’s general lack of parking has produced some astronomical prices for a spot. Underground residential spaces in Beijing were going for the equivalent of $160,000 last year. Quartz reported that the situation was partly the result of older developments that lacked on-site parking and streets that prohibited curbside parking.

Will the plan succeed?

Economists will tell you there’s no better way to restrict driving habits than to raise the price of owning and using a car. Requiring a parking space even before a vehicle purchase builds an extra layer of cost into the equation. One Beijing-based economist wrote that the city’s announcement was a “correct step” toward addressing the parking problem; here’s more, via the Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime blog:

“If a parking slot is sold at 200,000 yuan, the traffic congestion in Beijing will be largely eased.”

Beijing’s proof-of-parking rule would be a first for China, but there’s precedent for such a policy not too far away—in Tokyo. Asian-policy scholar Paul Barter of the National University of Singapore has argued that Tokyo’s plan created a robust market for parking and obviated the “parking minimum” standards that lead American developers to create too many spaces. Barter also suspects it “slowed the growth of car ownership in Japan”:

This impact must obviously be greatest in places with high property prices, where leased parking prices are also high. This deters car ownership in precisely the highly accessible, densely developed, transit-rich contexts where car ownership is least necessary.

What are the implications for city mobility?

At the broad social level, any check against Beijing’s rapid embrace of car-ownership is a benefit for local air pollution and traffic congestion. But at the personal level, it’s no surprise to hear objections to the news. Here’s one great comment, via Bloomberg:

“You already need an apartment before you can get a wife,” read a posting by zmast_com on one forum. “Soon you’ll need a cemetery plot before you can die.”

The proposed rule does raise equity questions concerning who will benefit from the change. Given the high cost of spaces even before the proof-of-parking plan was announced, lower-income residents may well be priced out of car-ownership in the city.

That means city officials must respond by improving the public transportation system—perhaps via a tax on the parking spaces sold under the new plan. The shift also opens the door for new micro-transit services that favor car access to ownership. With the right mobility provisions in place, a parking restriction might even feel liberating.

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