When I visited Shanghai a couple of years ago, our local guide mentioned that traffic in the city was becoming a massive problem. In fact, it had become such an issue, that only vehicles sporting Shanghai number plates were being allowed in the city centre during rush hours.
And getting your hands on a local number plate was becoming rather difficult. Motorists had to bid on a number plate, with the plate going to the highest bidder. At the time I visited, the going price was around the 30 000 yuan (R50 000) mark.
By the end of 2013, licence plates were going for as much as 90 000 yuan, which equates to a staggering R160 000! The Chinese government realised that things were getting a tad out of hand, so they decided to place a cap on these auctions – a cap of 74 000 yuan, still more than the average person can afford to spend on a licence plate, I think we can all agree.
What this basically means is that the right to use Shanghai’s streets have now been reserved for the wealthy. If you drive a cheap Chinese runabout that doesn’t cost close to 75 000 yuan, you probably don’t have that kind of money needed to buy a Shanghai licence plate, so your only option when commuting is to make use of public transport. And of course, property prices in the city centre are also ridiculously high, so you’ll be commuting from quite a distance away.
Dubai is now looking to take things one step further. How? By reserving the right to own and use a car for those above a certain income level. Admittedly, there is nothing definite on the cards, but it was mentioned by Dubai’s civic leaders as a viable option at a recent conference held in Germany.
It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if Dubai opted for this sort of strategy, since it is renowned as a playground for the rich and famous where the roads are overflowing with supercars. And who wants to be stuck behind a string of drab little A segment cars in a Ferrari 458 or Bugatti Veyron?
Thankfully, these are two rather extreme examples of what congestion can lead to, but these kinds of solutions are becoming increasingly common. In Beijing people are forced to enter a lottery where one out of ten entrants are awarded a licence plate. With plates being so scarce, they now fetch ridiculous prices on the black market. People are reportedly willing to spend as much as 200 000 yuan (R360 000) on a car plate.
Moreover, the city announced that on days when air pollution is particularly bad, a system will be put in place whereby only cars with either odd or even licence plate numbers will be allowed in the city centre, instantly taking half of Beijing’s four million cars off the road.
The system is euphemistically referred to as “road space rationing” and it will unfortunately once again force the poor to take the brunt of the impact. Those households with multiple cars and money to spend on black market licence plates will continue to live their lives as they always have. Those families with one vehicle will often find it hard to commute to work.
Thankfully, things aren’t quite as bad as that in SA yet, but there is no doubt that getting around is getting harder and harder for South Africa’s poor. Thanks to the weakening rand, new vehicle prices have skyrocketed. Add to this fuel prices that border on the absurd and an e-tolling system that can easily add a few hundred rand to a monthly commute, and vehicle ownership is now further out of reach for the average South African citizen than it has been in decades.
And those forced to make use of public transport? Well, they remain dependent on an unregulated and unsubsidised taxi industry that quite understandably will up fares because of the fuel price and e-toll implementation.
Next time you’re infuriated by a minibus taxi that cuts you off, take a second to thank your lucky stars that you’re not dependent on that taxi to get to work. If you’re reading this magazine, the fuel price hikes and e-tolls probably annoy you, but they won’t affect your lifestyle too much. For a lot of South Africans, these developments threaten to push them below the bread line.