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.
Traffic flow has suffered. In August, a 10-day monster jam stretched nearly 40 miles (60 kilometers) on a highway outside Beijing, forcing some drivers to sleep on the asphalt. The next month, the city hit a record 140 major backups on roads as people tried to get out of the city for a major holiday.
Nearly 70 percent of Beijing drivers told the IBM survey they had run into traffic so bad they've turned around at least once and gone home.
Officials acknowledged Thursday that making any dramatic difference in the city's traffic in any short time would be difficult, despite new commitments to more roads, more subway lines and efforts to shift population and services into the suburbs.
"We will experience congestion, alleviation measures, congestion and alleviation measures," said Beijing's traffic committee director, Liu Xiaoming.
As well as residents' creative ways to avoid restrictions.
When Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, it banned vehicles with odd or even-number plates to drive on alternate days. Now all cars are banned from the streets one day a week, based on their license plate numbers. But some Chinese have sought to evade that rule by buying a second vehicle. About one-fifth of new sales are for a second car, the government says.
Now car sellers, fresh from the recent buying spree, are concerned. "The new limits will no doubt affect our sales," said Wang Qian, a sales manager at Beijing Zhongda Auto Sales Company.
Beijing's government has portrayed itself as open to public criticism on alleviating traffic problems after official proposals were first floated last week. However, during Thursday's press conference, when a man who identified himself as a driver stood to ask a question, he was quickly hustled out of the room.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.