Citizen-led carpooling scheme takes on Beijing’s congestion

Wang Yong has given over 10,000 free rides to strangers, and is now involved in a major pilot in the capital trying to get Beijingers to carpool

While driving in Hunan one rainy night in 1998, Wang Yong passed an old woman who was slogging along the side of the road, getting splashed by passing cars. He pulled over and offered her a ride; he still remembers the warm feeling he got when the old lady and her family expressed their appreciation when he took her home.

Wang, who now lives in Beijing, says that warm feeling rekindled the childhood memory of a man in his village who would always give other villagers a lift into town. Remembering how the man was so highly revered, Wang was inspired to continue offering free rides under his slogan “Sharing Brings Warmth”. It was an idea that would spin into something much bigger than he expected.

In the beginning, Wang’s idea wasn’t warmly received. Whenever he drove past the bus station near his home, or on his way to work in the city, he’d simply roll down the window and shout out offers of a free ride to waiting passengers. People responded with indifference, suspicion and even hostility. It was rare that anyone actually got in his car. 

Wang was so upset by people’s rejection of his generous offer that in 2000 he phoned a newspaper’s hotline. He soon became known as the kind-hearted bald man offering free rides in his Mercedes. Since that rainy night in 1998, Wang estimates he has given rides to more than 10,000 people.

He later thought about trying to get more drivers involved, but worried that this would be risky. In addition to the question of trust, there were no policies or rules to regulate this type of service. He was also concerned that the government would consider it illegal if it turned into a carpool with passengers sharing costs with drivers. 

But as traffic congestion and air pollution worsened in Beijing, the need for a solution also become urgent. According to a recent study by Wang’s Shunfengche Public Benefit Foundation, at two expressway tollgates, 80% of the private vehicles that passed through had no passengers. 

Wang explained that there are currently five million vehicles in Beijing, of which one million are taken off the road each day under the city’s license plate scheme. If just 10% of the remaining four million took up carpooling, that would reduce traffic by an additional 400,000 cars every day. This would result in a roughly 30,000 ton reduction in carbon emissions in the city.

Branching out

But when Wang approached the authorities, first in 2009, then again the following year, there was no interest in his schemes, perhaps because of the lack of a precedent in China. 

Undaunted, Wang teamed up with the organisers of the popular “free lunch” campaign to organise the Shunfengche carpooling campaign on Weibo during the Chinese New Year holiday travel rush in 2011. The scheme attracted sponsorship from a law firm and an insurance company. The law firm offered legal services for potential disputes during the campaign and the insurance company helped address insurance coverage issues.

During the one month campaign, 18,000 people got involved on Weibo and more than 1,000 passengers were matched with approximately 500 drivers. The following year, the service moved beyond Weibo to the Shunfengche campaign website, as well as to smartphone apps and SMS messaging systems. During the 2013 New Year holiday, 402,429 people got involved through the four platforms and as many as 9,678 people eventually participated in carpooling.

Wang’s work led to him being given the “Beijing Youth Role Model” award in September 2012. This gave him the opportunity to meet Beijing’s mayor and make a pitch for a larger scheme, which he went on to present to government officials.

Wang suggested that carpoolers should be exempt from tolls, certain taxes and the license plate scheme, as well as being allowed to use the bus lane. Given that the actual implementation of this proposal would involve too many different government departments and interest groups, he was advised to revise it and draw up a simpler solution.

In May this year, a formal report that elaborated on his carpool campaign was submitted to the Beijing Municipal Government. A week later, Wang was given permission to start a pilot scheme in the Huilongguan area. 

Making progress

Although the city government approved the scheme, Wang soon realised that it would involve numerous formalities that would take years to negotiate. To get the campaign up and running sooner, Wang and his team decided to employ the funds from the Shunfengche Public Benefit Foundation to cover the express toll payment for carpoolers. Any private car that displays a special Shunfengche sticker and carries at least three people when entering the Beijing-Tibet Expressway through either the Huilongguan or the Xicanqi entrance will be exempt from the toll.

Other issues need to be addressed, such as locations for issuing toll exemption passes, designated carpool lanes, advertising and setting up traffic police patrols. But Wang says he’s now become more skilled at dealing with officials and feels his efforts are being taken seriously. 

Since the three-month campaign officially started on June 17, 10 billboards have been put up along the route to Huilongguan, while several volunteers have been stationed in various locations to hand out toll exemption passes.

Wang hopes that the data drawn from this pilot scheme will help expand the carpooling campaign throughout the city and make a convincing argument for the introduction of an official carpooling policy from the Beijing municipal government. He believes this will happen before the end of the year.

This article first appeared in The Economic Observer