One of the biggest challenges facing environmental sustainability improvements is balancing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with the increasing needs of economic development and social improvement. As a rapidly developing country, China has an increasing number of vehicles that not only cause severe traffic jams but also severely pollute the air, including with fine particulate matter (PM2.5
), especially in large cities. Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5
) can aggravate chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, alter host defenses, damage lung tissue, and even lead to premature death and cancer [1
]. Studies have indicated that road transport is one of the main sources of PM2.5
that accounts for approximately 25–30% of the emissions in major Chinese cities, such as Beijing [2
], Shanghai [3
], Guangzhou [4
], Hangzhou [5
], and Nanjing [6
]. Controlling transportation emissions has become essential for Chinese cities to reach their sustainable development goals.
In many countries, congestion charges, which are fees charged to those who travel in certain areas with private vehicles [7
], are viewed as a powerful tool to alleviate traffic-sourced GHG emissions, and have already been implemented in Singapore in 1975, London in 2003, Stockholm in 2006, and Milan in 2012. Congestion charge implementation has encountered public opposition in many cities, including Edinburgh and New York [8
]. The Chinese government has tried to design a feasible congestion charge policy in pilot cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, and Nanjing; however, strong public opposition occurred before the policy was drafted. In an online opinion poll in Beijing in 2016, 61.4% of respondents disagreed with the implementation of a congestion charge policy [9
As an authoritarian state, China’s policy process is top-down, and the general public does not have a direct channel to express their opinion or attempt to influence policy [10
]. With the development of civil society and the Internet and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, the general public has started to be more rights consciousness, meaning better interaction with the policy process, and having a better ability express their opinions in China [11
]. In recent years, expressions of opposition are hardly new; many nuclear energy projects and paraxylene (PX) projects have been suspended or cancelled as a result of harsh public criticism, which has sometimes led to social instability [12
]. As for smog control policies, noncompliance has occurred in some cities. Some people drive on plate restricted days, while others purchase multiples cars to break the driving restriction rules. Some even cover their plates or borrow plates from others [14
]. Ignoring public opposition during smog control policy design may cause barriers for its implementation.
Existing literature shows that diverging perspectives toward sustainable issues, their causes, and solutions may lead to public opposition to policies that pursue sustainability goals. For example, some people may see traffic policies, such as congestion charge policies or traffic restriction policies, as being overall beneficial policies to society because they could drastically increase transportation efficiency and reduce emissions. Others may see these policies as restricting mobility, especially to low-income individuals, or those who live far away from public service facilities [15
]. Although existing literature has discussed congestion charge policies regarding its traffic control goals, two questions still remain. Firstly, congestion charge policies for metropolitan cities and their ability to meet the sustainable goal of emission reduction has not been considered in the context of public opposition. The London government, for example, designed its congestion charge policy mainly for traffic control purposes, yet, it still calculated the emission reduction efforts during the policy adjustment process to determine if the fee should be adjusted for cars with ultra-low emission vehicles. The Beijing municipal government added GHG emission control as a major policy goal when the congestion charge policy draft was designed. Thus, the first question is “do the general public view congestion policies merely as traffic policies, as sustainability policies, or both?” We wanted to determine if the real reason for public opposition to congestion policies was the traffic features or the sustainable features.
Secondly, existing literature mainly focuses on the behavioral and policy-related factors for public acceptance of congestion charge policies, such as traffic inconvenience, trust in governmental agencies, and perceived fairness [15
]. However, the moderating role of concern about smog and perceived smog risk has not been discussed. In other words, people with different levels of concern about smog and risk perception might have different prerequisites for behavioral and policy-related factors to accept congestion fees. Eliasson and Jonsson [20
] revealed the strong causal relationship between citizens’ smog concerns and their support of congestion charges and suggested that emphasizing the positive effects of congestion fees on air quality may have had a positive impact on acceptance. Considering the environmental features in a congestion charge policy, smog awareness, especially the smog concerns and perceived smog risk, may also have indirect impacts on policy acceptance via behavioral or policy-related factors. In other words, people with a higher level of concern about smog would not only recognize the sustainability goal embedded within the congestion charge policy and therefore support the policy, but would also be likely to sacrifice their transit inconvenience and support the congestion charge policy to some extent in exchange for a better environment. For example, some Beijing residents stated in an online poll that they would have supported a congestion fee if it would be effective at controlling smog, regardless of the infringement on traffic freedom [21
]. Meanwhile, individuals who see congestion charge policies as a solution to environmental protection and sustainable development would raise concerns about the fairness of the policy process and their ability to participate in the policy-making process [22
]. Therefore, the second question that this paper tries to explore is to what extent smog awareness, particularly smog concerns and perceived smog risks, indirectly influences the acceptance level of congestion charge policy as a moderator. Notably, this discussion is not only addressing Chinese smog control, but also environmental policy design theory as a whole. If individual awareness would indirectly influence perceived fairness and their chance of participation in the policy-making process, then, the policy maker should understand the mechanism of influence and how policy design should be changed accordingly.
Studying public acceptance of congestion charge policies is timely. A study conducted in Hangzhou revealed that 46.26% of respondents were willing to pay a congestion fee during peak hours, and the average amount people were willing to pay was 28.81 yuan per month [23
]. However, less is known about the factors influencing public acceptance of congestion charges in China, especially the moderating role of smog awareness. This paper intends to fill this gap based on data collected from Beijing and Shanghai in August 2016, and answer the following research questions. We wanted to determine, in terms of smog control, how the public’s smog awareness interacts with behavioral and policy-related factors to influence their acceptance of congestion charges. This paper is organized as follows: Section 2
presents a review of the literature, Section 3
introduces the design of the study and the data source, Section 4
provides results of empirical findings, and Section 5
presents conclusions and policy implications.
5. Conclusions and Policy Implications
In many Chinese cities, smog pollution has become a severe environmental disaster that not only threatens public health, but has also created a significant challenge for the country to fulfill its sustainable development goals. The Beijing and Shanghai city governments plan to adopt congestion charge policies to reduce traffic jams and control smog pollution, following western countries such as the United Kingdom. However, public debates and public opposition have postponed the policy-making and implementation process. Two key aspects for the Chinese government to explore include the key determinants of public opposition and how these determinants impact public acceptance.
This paper contributes to the growing body of literature on public acceptance of a congestion charge while considering the moderating effect of smog awareness, including smog concern and perceived smog risks. We tested both the direct role and the moderating role of smog awareness on public acceptance. Using data derived from Beijing and Shanghai in August 2016, we used ordered logistic regression to examine the influence of WTP and risk perceptions. The research findings suggest that both WTP and risk perception are positively correlated with public acceptance, and those with greater concerns about smog or risk perceptions place a higher emphasis on perceived fairness.
Policy implications of this paper are two-fold. Echoing existing literatures, perceived fairness as well as political trust have a significant positive relationship with public acceptance. Therefore, participatory policymaking that involves the public in the decision-making process can enhance people’s trust in government agencies, and increase the legitimacy of the distribution standards in a congestion charge design. Practitioners should consider designing various mechanisms to engage citizens, thereby achieving key democratic values such as legitimacy, justice, and effectiveness in governance [75
]. Meanwhile, traffic inconvenience presents a significant negative impact on the acceptance of a congestion charge, and this impact is not negated by personal environmental preference. This implies that the majority of citizens still see a congestion charge as a traffic policy rather than as a sustainable policy. Therefore, governments should provide the public with clean, efficient, and convenient transportation alternatives to gain public support. Public education, however, may be provided via other channels. As results show, citizens who have higher levels of smog concerns and risk perceptions are more likely to directly support a congestion charge policy. Therefore, the government should organize publicity and public discussions on smog in an open manner. Environmental education, scientific knowledge publicity about smog, or illustrations of the effectiveness of smog control policies might all make the public more aware of the issue and supportive of the congestion charge as a result.
Secondly, as smog awareness plays an important role in public acceptance of a congestion charge, practitioners should pay more attention to people’s smog awareness in order to improve public support and gain legitimacy. With regard to policies that contain environmental or sustainable goals, individual concerns about a smog crisis and potential risks may especially influence the effort of other factors, such as policy fairness. In this sense, policy makers should place a higher emphasis on policy fairness presented in environmentally-oriented policies compared with other policies. This could explain why China has encountered major public opposition on issues related to the environment, and the public mainly argued for policy transparency, openness, and fairness.
Although this paper introduces further study topics with regard to public acceptance of sustainable policies, limitations still exist. Our sample size included only 574 respondents from two large cities, Beijing and Shanghai, which might threaten the applicability and validity of the paper in other locations. Extended sampling is needed in future research to better represent the general public with regards to a congestion charge policy. Also, this paper follows many existing studies on perception and testing respondents’ subjective attitudes, willingness, or opinions, but not their actual behaviors. We noticed that there has been no consensus on how self-reported perception actually measures individual behaviors, especially within sustainable or environmental contexts [77
]. We also noticed that measuring actual citizen opposition toward a congestion charge policy would be difficult. Potentially, a case study could be built to extend academic observation to how citizens present their opposing behavior toward this policy in the future. Nevertheless, this research sheds light on some of the mechanisms of public acceptance formation and takes smog awareness into consideration, providing practical implications for policy makers when implementing congestion charge policies in the future.