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Beijing Offers Modest Solutions to Ease Traffic Congestion

Beijing officials announced higher parking fees and other modest measures Wednesday to cope with the surging car use that is clogging the Chinese capital's streets.

BEIJING — Beijing officials announced higher parking fees and other modest measures Wednesday to cope with the surging car use that is clogging the Chinese capital's streets and drawing criticism from residents and political leaders.

Beijing added new vehicles at the rate of about 1,000 a day last year, giving the city a total of 2.6 million vehicles, half of them private cars, officials with city transportation agencies said. Despite that, they said, the city was managing to alleviate congestion on streets -- or at least keep it from getting worse.

"The traffic situation in Beijing has not deteriorated," Liu Xiaoming, spokesman for the city's Transportation Committee, said at a news conference. "In places, it has improved, but of course in some places new congestion has appeared."

Liu cited three years of widening roads, building new highways and improving public transport. That program would be continued this year, he said, alongside higher parking fees that were intended to discourage people from driving.

But his assessment contrasts with the perceptions of many in Beijing, who complain that both traffic and air pollution are worsening. That perception gap underscores how the government is straining to balance economic priorities with environmental protection, especially ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

"As a Beijing resident, I don't feel the traffic has gotten better or that air pollution has improved either," said Liao Xiaoyi, a longtime environmental campaigner who heads Global Village of Beijing. "This limitless development of private car ownership is a mistake."

The city's economy steamed ahead at an 11.8 percent annual clip for the past five years, according to official figures. This month, Mayor Wang Qishan announced a 9 percent growth target for this year and the rest of the decade. In doing so, he acknowledged to the city's legislature the need to strike a balance and singled out traffic and pollution for serious attention.

It remains unclear whether such high-level pronouncements will be backed up with effective policies. Beijing has actively promoted the proliferation of cars, giving tax breaks to South Korean car maker Hyundai to set up a plant in the city. It has so far refused to impose restrictions like Shanghai, which limits the issue of new license plates and auctions them off.

Liu, the transportation official, did not indicate that the city was considering drastic action to deal with the increasing numbers of vehicles. He defended the government's record on traffic congestion.

"The Beijing city government has not evaded its responsibilities," he said. Rather, Liu said increasing car use and bad traffic were a natural byproduct of Beijing's rapid economic development.

"Major cities around the world have spent more than a decade or two trying to solve this problem," Liu said. "Some big cities still face this problem."

Source: Associated Press

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