By the Numbers: Car Control Confounds Beijing

In the last few years, Beijing became more famous for its thick smog than for the Imperial Palace. Not wanting to be embarrassed during the Olympics, and after a lot of head-scratching, the City of Beijing had resorted to what insiders called the “Nigeria Solution:” Cars with license plates ending in an odd number were allowed to drive on odd days, cars with even numbers on even days of the month.

In the 70’s, Lagos, Nigeria had invented that scheme. The city of 7 million was in the grips of a gigantic gridlock. A friend of mine was sent to Lagos by Volkswagen to help establish their new plant in Nigeria. He called the rule “the best marketing campaign we ever had.” People who could afford it simply bought a second car.

Beijing’s car dealers already budgeted higher sales when the the city discussed keeping the odd/even rule after the Olympics. Instead, China’s capital came up with a rule nobody could have expected:

Cars with a license plate ending in 1 or 6 are not allowed to drive on Mondays.

Cars with a license plate ending in 2 or 7 are not allowed to drive on Tuesdays.

Cars with a license plate ending in 3 or 8 are not allowed to drive on Wednesdays.

Cars with a license plate ending in 4 or 9 are not allowed to drive on Thursdays.

Cars which have a license plate that ends in 5 or 0 may not drive on Fridays.

Cars with temporary plates, or with plates ending with a letter, are treated as “0” cars: No driving on Fridays.

Police, ambulances, fire trucks, busses, taxis and other public transport vehicles are exempt.

On Saturday and Sunday, everybody may drive.

The rule does not apply outside of the 5th Ring Road.

For privately owned vehicles, the rule applies from 6am to 9pm.

For company-owned or government-owned vehicles (except for the ones mentioned above) the rule is in effect around the clock.

How the authorities notice that a car is privately or company owned remains a riddle. There are no special signs for company cars. Police would have to pull cars over and check the registration to find out. Would this be 1984, they would follow motorists at night, call in their plate, and pull them over if it’s a Thursday, if the plate ends in a 9, and if the vehicle is registered with a company. In Germany, they could do just that even in 2008. But this is China.

It gets even more complex: Each month, the deck will be reshuffled, and new days will be announced that are off-limits for certain numbers. By end of October, a Beijinger with a 1 as the last number on his plate has hopefully gotten it in his head that on Mondays, he has to take the subway or hitch a ride with his neighbor. Come November, he will have to unlearn everything. In November, it could be a Wednesday. And it could be a Tuesday in December. Or a Friday. Nobody knows. The traffic bureau will announce the new days a week before the start of a new month.

It is no surprise that Beijing is a bit perplexed by the scheme. The Chinese are big on numbers. Numerology is king in China. Vanity telephone numbers are unknown in China, because Chinese allegedly remember numbers better than letters. Even to the numerically superior Chinese, the scheme appears to be challenging. On Monday, I saw many cars with 1 or 6. On Tuesday, I saw a lot with 2 or 7. On Wednesday, many cars with 3 or 8 were on the road. They weren’t just on the road, they were on TV. Footage of scofflaws who ignored the new rules ruled the airwaves. However, I had to tell my driver that he would not be allowed to pick me up at the airport on Thursday, because of the number 4 on our plate. He never had heard of the rule, and he looked at me as if I’m a “250” – that’s what the numerically superior Chinese call a stupid person.

Beijing’s car dealers have new hopes that people will find an incentive to own a second car once the rules sink in. But what happens to the poor folks who have the bad luck of owning one car that has a 1 as the last number of the license plate, while their second car has – dammit – a 6? Many had acquired a second car before the Olympics and had made sure that the plate ended in an odd number if the first car’s number was even. And now the investment is supposed to be for naught? The Traffic Bureau has mercy with these poor souls. They can go and trade in their license plate for a non-conflicting number. And with two cars, they can happily drive on all days of the week.

According to just released figures, 2 million more cars will take to Beijing’s roads by 2012, and bring the total to 5.4 million. If the numbers-scheme stays in place, we could see 2 million more cars by next year.

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