Thousands of people entered a Beijing lottery yesterday hoping to win the top prize – the right to drive in one of the most gridlocked cities of the world.
City authorities came up with the plan to cap the number of new cars at 240,000 this year, a two-third fall on 2010, to try to deal with the city's terrible pollution problem.
The nation's capital is choked with smog, much of it caused by the swelling fleet of cars, which has made traffic jams a byproduct of the country's burgeoning economy. An IBM survey showed that Beijing and Mexico City are the world's worst commutes.
Under the new rules, a Beijing driver will be permitted to own no more than one car and only owners who replace their old vehicles will automatically be allowed to have a new number plate. "Licence plates will be similar to ID cards," said Meng Qiao, a deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport. "The licence plate will remain with the car, whether it is sold or destroyed."
Air quality has got dramatically worse as cars have become the purchase of choice for those with spare cash to spend in this city of 19 million people.
The days when Beijing was a city of bicycles are long gone: the humble push bike has been replaced by electric two-wheelers. Beijing now has 4.76 million vehicles, up from 2.6 million in 2005, and by 2012, Beijing will have 7 million vehicles on the road, according to official figures. China overtook the US as the world's biggest car market in 2009. Overall, vehicle sales in China this year are expected to exceed 20 million.
Perhaps not surprisingly, driving conditions are becoming more hazardous too. "The reason there are so many prangs is that the roads are full of people who only got their driving licences within the last five years," said one Chinese commuter. "It's like the roads are full of teenagers."
The city launched five new underground metro lines last week to try to improve the public transport system and take some of the pressure off the city's infrastructure.
Within 10 minutes of the new lottery starting, 6,000 people had applied for new plate numbers and there were over 50,000 applicants by 5pm for the first batch of 20,000 number plates up for grabs in January.
In some ways the new rules in Beijing are an effort to catch up with the country's biggest city, Shanghai, where the municipal government has for many years imposed a license fee of roughly 50,000 yuan (£5,000) for each car owned.Reuse content