The Future of Beijing’s Cleaner Air

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Most of the history that happened in Beijing over the past few weeks took place in gyms, in the pool and on the track. But there was also history in the air, specifically the best summer air quality this city has seen in 10 years. So as the Olympic experience fades into memory, the question remains whether the Chinese capital can keep that clean air from fading as well.

Several measures and some $17 billion were used to get pollution under control in time for the Olympics. But the step that most directly affected Beijing residents was the program for talking half of the city’s 3.3 million cars off the road each day. Cars with odd-numbered plates were limited to driving on odd numbered dates, and even plates to even dates. After seeing how beautiful this city can be with clean skies, some are asking why can’t such the plan, which ends Sept. 20, be made permanent. The state-run Xinhua News Service reported that more than 400,000 people have “joined an online discussion” about the future of the car ban. In a survey on Xinhua’s website, more than half the respondents indicated they’d support permanent restrictions. Web surveys are notoriously unreliable, but the results at least indicate some support for further steps to improve Beijing’s air.

Which is good news, but the support is misdirected. The car restrictions were helpful for Beijing’s Olympic cleanup, but at best they were a temporary measure. While car owners were willing to endure great inconvenience to put on a good show for the Olympics, their tolerance is unlikely to last beyond September. And an odd-even plan would probably lose effectiveness in the long run. In Mexico City, which started once-a-week restrictions in 1989, studies have shown that the program had no affect on air pollution in the long run because residents bought new cars and held onto old ones to ensure they always had a vehicle to drive. TIME’s Beijing bureau offers a similar example. Our junky old Jeep, which rarely saw the road since we bought a new vehicle a couple years ago, got regular mileage during the Olympic period because it has odd-numbered plates and our regular ride has even.

But in all the discussion of the car ban there are some positive signs. People care about Beijing’s air quality and are looking for ways to improve it. While continuing the car ban isn’t a long-term fix, it might not be so hard to get people behind further improving mass transit, which unlike a car ban could actually make getting around easier.