Saturday, April 24, 2010

Plateless in Peking

First it was easy to remember. Cars with license plate numbers ending in 1 and 6 couldn't be driven on Mondays, 2 and 7 on Tuesdays, 3 and 8 on Wednesdays, 4 and 9 on Thursdays, and 5 and 0 on Fridays. 20% of the vehicles have to stay off the road from 7 AM to 8 PM each day. This went on for a while. This initial "trial period" was for 6 months, from 10/11/08 to 4/10/09. Then some drivers pointed out how "unfair" this was. Those with cars with plate numbers ending in 0 or 5 would never be able to drive on Fridays!!!

To address this, Beijing City government imposed a 3-month automatic rotation, starting on April 11th, 2009. Each rotation would last 3 months. During the first 3 months, from 4/11/09-7/10/09, it would be 5 and 0 off road on Mondays, 1 and 6 on Tuesdays, 2 and 7 on Wednesdays, 3 and 8 on Thursdays, 4 and 9 on Fridays. The second 3 months, from 7/11/09-10/09/09, it would be 4 and 9 on Mondays, 5 and 0 on Tuesdays, 1 and 6 on Wednesdays, 2 and 7 on Thursdays, 3 and 8 on Fridays. And so on ... (hmm...  perhaps I could convince Steve Strogatz to write a NYT blog on modular arithmetic?)

[Quick quiz: Which 2 numbers shouldn't be on the road today?]

Some times I would play a little game during our morning commute. I would try to guess which day of the week it was by looking at the plate numbers of cars during my commute. let's see, there's a 9, so it couldn't be Thursday; I see a 6, so it's not Monday, ... But wait, today is Wednesday. That number 3 shouldn't be on the road at this time! And hold on! That car has a CD stuck over the last digit of its plate. Hmm....  (Some times instead of a CD covering the last digit, there would be an ad leaflet, or some tape, or just plain dirt ...)

When I moved here, oh barely over 2 years ago, there were a little over 3 million cars in Beijing. Now there are well over 4 million! In the last few months, each month there has been roughly 100,000 new cars sold in Beijing! Talk about exponential growth!!!

Last December I noticed that the number of new cars seems to be growing fast. Before the (lunar) New Year, every day I saw 1 or 2 brand new cars without license plates. Presumably, the Beijing City Traffic Management Bureau just cannot handle the sheer number of new license plate applications each day! Though why cars without plates (and without temporary stickers with ID numbers) are being driven is beyond my simple mind!

Lately, I'm seeing more and more plateless cars are on the road. Just last night, during the 12 min, 4.5 km ride from my wife's lab, we saw 4 cars without plates. These days I see these plateless cars running traffic lights, driving in the bicycle lane or down the wrong side of the street, making U turns from the right lane at a stop light, ..., and parking with impunity on sidewalks or firelanes! (These were normally the "privilege" reserved for military cars and government vehicles a few years ago.)

A few times I saw that the car ahead has no plate on the back, but has a plate on the front. That's when I realized that some Beijing drivers are now purposely removing their license plates! (After all, some of these plateless cars did not look brand new to me.) One late night, just after we saw a plateless car run a red light and into the Datun tunnel (one of the underpasses going underneath the Olympic Park), we noticed a few cars parked in the breakdown lane in the tunnel. A few drivers, all looking to be 25-30 in age, were talking on their cell phones. None of the cars had plates! My guess was that they were about to drag race... We called the Beijing Traffic Bureau immediately.

But my wife's e-mails to the Beijing Traffic Bureau remain unanswered. And the number of cars without license plates is most definitely increasing!

Addendum 25 April 2010. Early this month, CCTV News had a short segment on a female Anhui bus driver. Supposedly when she was driving her route, she blocked a car following her bus from turning at a corner. The car tailed her, and at the next bus stop, one of the guys in the car got off and came on the bus.  Here's link to the video taken from the camera on the bus of what ensued. She tried to explain to the guy that she was not trying to block him. However, the guy started to kick her in the head and face a few times!!! Unfortunately, the camera was not very well positioned and could not get a clear shot of the guy. The car drove off without anybody stopping it. In any case, the car had no license plate.

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