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Beijing to cut new car registration by two thirds

BEIJING -- China's capital announced Thursday that it will sharply limit new vehicle registrations to try to ease massive traffic jams that are rapidly turning Beijing's streets into parking lots.

The city will only allow 240,000 vehicles to be registered next year, said Zhou Zhengyu, vice secretary general of the Beijing city government. The figure is equal to a little more than one-third of the total number of new cars put on the capital's streets this year.

Traffic jams in Beijing have worsened recently, with the city dithering over how to clear up the smoggy congestion while still allowing the Communist country's burgeoning middle class the automobiles they crave.

The capital now has 4.76 million vehicles, compared to 2.6 million in 2005. A global survey conducted this year by IBM said Beijing is tied with Mexico City for the world's worst commute. Worries are growing that Beijing is choking itself for future growth as it gets more difficult to move people and goods around the city.

But increasingly affluent Chinese want cars for status and a sign of independence, and they have easily found ways to finesse official restrictions in the past.

The new car registration limits had been anticipated by the public, sparking a buying spree last week. The official Xinhua News Agency said 30,000 new vehicles were registered in the past week alone, at least three times the normal rate.

Beijing officials did avoid the likely anger of the city's car owners by putting off any decision on long-discussed congestion fees — charging to drive in certain areas of the city — saying the idea needed further study. Instead, Zhou told a news conference that car registrations would be allocated by a license plate lottery system, starting Friday.

The brakes are coming on after China has been pushing automobiles as a growth industry. It overtook the United States in 2009 as the world's biggest car market, with sales surging 45 percent to 13.6 million vehicles.

An average of nearly 2,000 new cars hit the road each day in Beijing, a city of 17 million. Before the latest restrictions were announced, that growth current rate, the Beijing Transportation Research Center estimates that car ownership will reach 7 million by 2015.

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