Beijing bans 1,3-million cars to cut pollution

Beijing banned more than one million cars from its roads on Friday in a test run to improve air quality for the Olympics, easing gridlock but failing to lift a curtain of smog from the capital.

More than 6 500 traffic police were on duty across the city to ensure car owners observed the ban, while an extra two million more trips were expected to be taken on subways and buses during the day, officials said.

The four-day test is geared as a prelude for a similar ban to be put in place for the duration of the August 2008 Olympics, as part of a range of measures to temporarily improve air quality for athletes and visitors.

Beijing is one of the world’s most polluted cities, and poor air quality, blamed partly on the city’s three million cars — a number growing by 1 200 a day — has long been a top concern for athletes and officials.

Those worries were exacerbated as a weeks-long smoggy haze that reduced visibility to just a few hundred metres on occasions marred the build-up to last week’s August 8 one-year countdown to the Games.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, in Beijing for the countdown, said then some events could be postponed if pollution was extremely bad, in what would be an unprecedented move to protect athletes’ health.

City officials said they expected the ban to have a big impact, with vehicle emissions to be cut by 40%.

“This is a sweeping traffic ban, so the effects on pollution levels are expected to be dramatic,” said Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau.

“Today [Friday] is a good day in terms of pollution. You can go out and do sports or whatever you want.”

However, by Friday afternoon the smog, which has become as much a feature of the city as construction workers and new skyscrapers, remained thick.

The ban received mixed reviews from commuters forced to jam into crowded subways and buses. Others did not believe it would have much of an impact on air quality.

Lu Xiandan (27) said she had to wrestle her way on to the bus during rush hour to rech her downtown office.

“I go by bus every day but this time I had to fight just to get a ride, never mind a seat,” she said.

Businessman Wang Xindong, who normally drives to work, found himself stuck at an inner-city subway station. He predicted that the impact on air quality would be minimal.

“As for the pollution emissions, I don’t think taking cars off the road for just four days will have an immediate effect,” he said

Of the city’s 2,4-million private cars, those with licence plates ending in an even number are banned on Friday and Sunday, while those with an odd number must remain off the roads on Saturday and Monday.

Commuters who drive on the wrong day face fines of 100 yuan ($13), according to the state-run press.

With taxis exempt from the ban, cab driver Jia Jinrong was up early on Friday and expecting a good day of business. However, he was surprised that the traffic had eased only marginally.

“The traffic is okay, but not as good as I expected,” he said. “We all know this car ban is just a show for the Olympics, a superficial phenomenon.”

A fleet of government-owned vehicles were also taken off the roads, with the total number of cars remaining at home each day expected to be about 1,3-million, according to city officials.

The traffic measure coincides with a series of test events for next year’s Olympics in the host city, including road cycling, beach volleyball, canoeing, baseball and archery. — AFP

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