Officials say Beijing's air improved with cars off street

BEIJING -- Despite a persistent gray haze, officials said
Tuesday an exercise that removed more than 1 million private
vehicles a day from Beijing's gridlocked streets was a success that
could mean a clearer sky during next summer's Olympics.

Humidity and wind conditions kept the pollution from dispersing,
but the air during the four-day drill would have been much worse
without the vehicle restrictions, said Du Shaozhong, the deputy
director of the Chinese capital's Environmental Protection Bureau.

"The test was successful. These four days the wind speed was
slow, while the humidity and temperature were high," Du told
reporters, noting that a gray sky doesn't necessarily mean
pollution is bad.

Air pollution has emerged as a key problem for Beijing as it
gears up for the Olympics, to be held Aug. 8-24, 2008. Jammed
traffic and the possibility of political protests by critics of the
communist regime are also concerns, although venue construction is
firmly on schedule.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge warned
during a visit this month that the competition schedule might have
to be juggled on days when pollution was particularly bad.

The government's own statistics showed that the air quality
during the test rated among the top 10 worst days of the month so
far and slightly worse that the same period a year ago.

The traffic ban removed 1.3 million private vehicles from the
capital's perpetually gridlocked streets each day. Additional buses
and subways were added as residents turned to public
transportation, car pools and taxis.

Cars with even-numbered license plates were ordered off roads
Friday and Sunday, and vehicles with odd-numbered plates were
banned Saturday and Monday. Emergency vehicles, taxis, buses and
other public-service vehicles were exempt.

Beijing had an air pollution index of between 93 and 95 during
the test days, the city's environmental protection bureau said on
its Web site. According to the State Environmental Protection
Agency, an index below 100 indicates excellent or good conditions.

"As the air quality during these four days reached the national
standard, it was fit for all activities, including sports," Du

The index hit 116 Tuesday after the test and was 115 on Aug. 16,
the day before the trial began, the Chinese statistics showed.

Officials said a reading of between 101 to 200 indicates slight
pollution and people with heart and respiratory conditions are told
to avoid exertion and outdoor activities.

Earlier in the month, the pollution index had dipped as low as
42 and generally hovered in the 70s or 80s in the first two weeks
of August.
Chris Miller, director of the global warming campaign at
Greenpeace, said the car ban was a step in the right direction for
China, but he doubted whether it showed any real commitment to
improving air quality.

"This is a short-term solution to what is a very acute and
long-term problem. In some ways it just highlights how serious the
problem really is," he said.

"They will probably be able to get air pollution to at least
semi-acceptable levels for a couple of weeks at Olympics sites in
and around Beijing, but the question is why can't they then figure
out how to make that happen every day?" Miller said.

Beijing residents praised the traffic controls, saying they were
necessary to ease gridlock. Zhai Shuanghe, an official with the
city traffic management bureau, said average traffic speeds on main
roads rose just over 53 percent, to about 27 mph.

"I thought it was very good. There was an immediate effect on
the traffic," said a woman who gave her surname as Li. She said
she usually drives 2-3 times a week.

A cab driver, who only gave his surname as Wang, said his
business did not increase significantly, but he thinks the controls
should be in place beyond the Olympics.

"I think it's good to regulate by license plate number. I think
they should do it long-term, so there's no congestion," he said.

Traffic controls are just one way Olympics organizers have tried
to clear the skies. Officials have spent billions of dollars
closing factories and moving others out of the city. Frenzied,
around-the-clock construction to modernize Beijing will be
curtailed ahead of the games next summer.

Beijing is particularly focused on combating particle pollution,
which can cause breathing problems and reduced visibility. That
pollution is caused by emissions from power plants, diesel engines
and wind-blown dust. High ozone levels, which occur on sunny days
when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons emitted by car tailpipes,
power plants and factories react in the air, are also a problem.

Zhai said the restrictions were widely respected, with only
5,648 cars found in violation.

"It demonstrates the great consciousness and civilization of
Beijing citizens," he said.