Something in the Air

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Over the past few days, Beijing has seen an abundance of a very rare entity: happy cab drivers. Sure, I got a ride with one cranky driver who seemed preoccupied with not being confined to a single lane. But most were like Ma Kuishan, who was dangerously close to giddy as he drive through northeast Beijing on Friday evening. “Normally, we’d be stuck in a traffic jam right now,” he said, as he nosed his cab through a intersection full of cars, cyclists and pedestrians. It was crowded, but nothing compared to a usual Beijing day. Starting Friday morning the government has blocked about 1.3 million private vehicles from driving to test how such a measure would help air quality during next year’s Summer Olympics.

Not everyone was as happy as the cab drivers, who relished seeing traffic reduced by a third. I overheard some grousing by car owners whose vehicles were grounded by the temporary restrictions, though most seemed to take it in stride. But while the traffic flow has improved immensely, the gray air seems unchanged. According to the official air pollution index, the capital clocked a 95 for today, the last day of the test. That means the city’s air is officially “good,” though it’s just six points out of the “lightly polluted” category. The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau announced yesterday that recent weather conditions hadn’t helped the pollution situation, but that the car restrictions had limited the level of nitrogen oxide. If not for the restrictions, the air would have been worse, the bureau said.

The conditions got mixed reviews from members of Australia’s national cycling team, who participated in a road race on Saturday. While Tour de France runner-up Cadel Evans told Australia’s Daily Telegraph he was disappointed with Beijing and the IOC over the pollution, teammate Michael Rogers told the Canberra Times he didn’t have any problems with the air. The pair went on to finish first and second in a time trial on Sunday.