Clearing Out Beijing Traffic for the Olympics

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The Beijing government has announced its plans for car restrictions during the Olympics. These are one of the key measures to prevent the Games from being clouded by a toxic air. It’s been understood for a while that some sort of limitations would be placed on vehicle traffic in Beijing. What’s surprising is how early the measures will go into effect. Government vehicles will limit trips by 30% starting on July 1, and increase that to 70% on July 20, when restrictions on private vehicles begin, nearly three weeks before the opening ceremony on August 8.

The rules will follow the system that was tested last August and also in 2006 during a China-Africa summit. Cars with odd-numbered plates will be allowed to drive only on odd numbered dates, and even on even. There will be exceptions for police and emergency vehicles, taxis and buses and other specialized vehicles. All in all, nearly half of Beijing’s 3.3 million cars will be taken off the road each day during the Games.

The last experiment with limiting cars in town had limited success. After last year’s four-day exercise the sky was still hazy, although environmental officials calculated that things would have been even worse. A longer-term restriction should be more successful.

The early start seems to be an acknowledgment that for the all the effort and more than $16 billion investment that’s gone into cleaning up Beijing, air pollution remains a serious problem ahead of the Games. It’s a point that’s been raised on a growing number of blogs (here’s the Wall Street Journal’s take, and James Fallows from the Atlantic) as well as anyone who looks out the window and thinks, “Who would want to run in this?”

Thus far the government has tried to put a bright face on Beijing’s air quality, noting that emissions have declined since 2000 and “blue sky days,” where major pollutants don’t exceed set levels, reached 246 last year. But the validity of those numbers is questionable. Looking at the sky and arguing that the air doesn’t seem so clean is, of course, a subjective measure. But it is also a measure that will be used by the thousands of athletes and tourists who will arrive in August.