Thanks to an unprecedented set of restrictions on cars and factories for the Olympics and this month's Paralympic Games, the skies over Beijing have been cleaner than ever. Used to massaging pollution data and calling gray skies blue, officials now seem as surprised as anyone at the post-Olympic air. A rare cameo by a naked sun in recent days even earned a headline on the state-run Xinhua website.
But the weather isn't even the most popular topic of conversation. The bigger issue for many, and the question that's been biting at everyone for years: how will Beijing stay beautiful after the Olympic period is over? A senior official from Beijing's environment bureau said recently that the city intends to keep some of its pollution restrictions in place. Apparently, factories around the city shuttered for the Games will be made to improve their pollution control measures before reopening.
But officials have yet to make a final decision about the odd-even car ban (å•åŒå·é™è¡Œ), which prohibits cars from driving based on their last license plate digit. Will Beijing really abolish it for the clogged roads and smoggy skies of yore? Or will the city of over a thousand new cars a day come up with something even better? Given the way pollution travels around the globe, we should all be concerned.
Beijing's big public debate
In an inspiring and increasingly familiar sign of progress, officials have said they want to hear the opinions of Beijing's residents before moving forward. And residents are taking to internet forums to speak their minds. The debate can be divided into two fairly predictable sides--the have-cars and the have-nots--a divide that is as good as any at describing the social, economic and environmental tensions of Chinese urban life.
And aside from leaving many car driving Beijingers thinking more carefully about the impact of their driving habits, it's also sparked a crucial and perhaps pathbreaking public debate about the environment, the government's role and the people's responsibility.
The Car Ban Supporters
"I support a long-term car restriction. We have made some mistakes in the past. Now we should correct them and return blue skies to our children," wrote a netizen named He Luzhu on a forum at ynet.com, the portal site of Beijing Youth Daily. Agreeing with him were residents surveyed in a number of polls. Two surveys -- one in the Beijing News and one on the website for English magazine The Beijinger -- show 70 percent of the population behind the ban. There's even a Facebook group in support of it.
By keeping the restrictions, Greenpeace China's Sze Pang Cheung told me, "Beijing can also set examples for other mega-cities in China. The Olympics may have ended, but whether the Games will leave a positive environmental legacy to Beijing and to China would very much be decided by the decision of the Beijing government." Greenpeace is helping collect opinions and considering how to pressure the Beijing goverment. Sze added, "it would be hard to say goodbye to the blue sky."
It would be hard to let go of this gorgeous weather. And because of the pollution that typically settles in over China's capital, a great day in Beijing is, I'd argue, more intoxicating than anywhere else. What the Communist Party giveth, it also taketh away. But will it really do that?
The Car Owners
No one wants to return to the grey skies of pre-Olympic Beijing. But car owners, many of them members of the growing middle class, argue that cutting their car use outright in half is simply unfair after they've spent so much on a new car. As China Daily columnist Gu Wen writes,
The average car owner in the city may spend tens of thousands of yuan a year on taxes, insurance, parking fees, depreciation in car value and other expenses. As such, some argue that pulling cars from the roads now and then might look like a "simplistic" approach to a complex issue and represent "poor" urban management skills.
The Real Problems
Or to put it another way, should car owners have to pay for the mistakes of urban and economic planners who have been hell bent on building new roads and expanding the auto market? Probably not--especially when so many officials can get around the restrictions, either with special badges or simply because they are wealthy enough to afford more than one car (private citizens can simply circumvent the restrictions by getting another license plate).
One great source of officials' wealth of course are the oil and automobile industries, which, in a typically stifling conflict of interest, are largely government owned. Pulling cars off the streets would hurt the economy and the government's bottom line.
Plus, a car ban reeks of authoritarian control -- something China has suffered more than enough. Most importantly, it's little more than a band-aid for the illnesses of pollution and terrible traffic, amidst a high demand for cars:
Some more workable solutions, some of which are already under way, include:
1. Tax disincentives
Thanks to subsidies, China has some of the lowest gasoline prices in the world. Earlier hikes in gasoline prices -- Beijing finally implemented its latest tax hike in July -- might have helped the city avoid emergency measures like the car ban to begin with. More realistic prices for oil would help temper the desire to drive. Also helpful are taxes on cars, like the dramatic tax hike on large cars that went into effect this week.
2. Ban high emission vehicles
Beijing, which implemented Euro IV emissions standards for new cars this year and has kept high-emission trucks out of the city for the Olympics, already has the ball rolling. Euro IV may not directly tackle fine particles or CO2 for non-diesel cars, but it's the right direction. And banning high emission vehicles, which
make up 10 percent of Beijing's cars but account for up to half of its car pollution, is a policy to be maintained, even if it means continued tax breaks to owners. Now the issue is largely one of enforcement.
3. Occasional no car days
Now that Beijing's driving population has been given a taste of life without the car, more voluntary (or even occasional mandatory) no car days may now prove a little more popular, and serve as reminders that driving is not the healthiest way to get around the city.
4. Encourage car pooling
I'm always amazed at how many cars I see in Beijing without passengers. And there is to my knowledge no such thing as a car-pool lane here.
5. Limit government cars
My informal estimate is that black luxury sedans, often Audi A6s, make up one of every five cars on the road. They are helmed by government and military officials of all rank -- precisely the sort of folks who should be serving the people by taking public transportation. And naturally, many of these cars are not impacted by the current odd-even car policy. The city needs to take the exact opposite tack: a limit on cars purchased (or in some cases doled out) to government bureaus couldn't hurt. What impact the new tax policy on large cars will have on government driving remains to be seen, but hopefully it will at least provoke their wealthy private sector counterparts to consider taking taxis or -- gasp! -- buses.
6. Raise parking fees
This time-honored solution is low-cost and easy and one that officials have explored before. Parking has been a major flash point for social tension in Beijing, so the government would need to tread lightly.
7. License plate restrictions and congestion pricing
To cope with tight roads and a burgeoning population, Shanghai charges high prices for license plates. Is Beijing really going to let Shanghai, it's erstwhile rival, take the lead here? Congestion pricing, or charging cars more money to enter certain neighborhoods, is also on the table. But these schemes could also, as was argued in LA, exacerbate bubbling class tensions, of which the government has to be wary. Of course, no such scheme could be introduced without first...
8. Better public transportation
Last year, Beijing promised that a car ban during the Olympics would not be necessary because "car owners will willingly give up driving" for public transit. That dream didn't come true, but the city isn't giving up. At the heart of the city's green Olympics legacy is a massive public transit expansion that will in two decades turn a three line subway system into the world's largest underground network. Two crucial new lines, line 5 and line 10, were opened in the past year, along with new BRT lines, even as prices decreased. Hopefully, Beijing will keep its extended public transit hours and find ways to cope with increasing numbers of strap-hangers; crowds are one of the reasons so many opt for private cars.
9. Hybrid electric cars, e-bikes and bike bikes
They are still expensive and rare in China, but increasing demand (at least in places like Israel) may help bring electric cars like these to market. Already, Beijing has added a few hybrids to its taxi fleet. More e-bikes, and other smaller forms of clean motorized personal transit, could provide a nice complement to Beijing's best vehicle, the good old bicycle. The bike could get a boost from a growing number of rental outlets.
10. Better urban planning
Creating more density around peri-centers or satellite towns outside of the locked-up (and occasionally protected) city center or Central Business District would go a long way toward pushing cars off crowded roads. While Beijing features great bike lanes, pedestrians face super-wide streets, inconvenient bridges, and enormous distances. The government needs to bulid less large roads and mandate that new commercial construction provides for pedestrian movement, bicycles and public space, in the spirit of new urbanism. Though it's an Olympic showpiece, the new LEED Gold certified Olympic Village is a great model.
What's a one-party government with its hand in the auto industry -- and a public increasingly discontent with pollution -- to do?
An odd-even car ban has proven to be great for Beijing in short term. And it's already left behind a healthy legacy: strong public debate over the environment that the government has no choice but to heed, at least in part. In only the latest sign of increasing public participation, Beijing residents took advantage of a relaxed post-Olympic moment to stage a protest over a landfill.
Still, it's unlikely the car ban will stay in place. To say nothing of the impact to the auto industry, cars are too important to the middle and upper classes, and those classes are too important to the government. And just as well: a car ban is neither as fair nor as sustainable as measures that alter demand (weaning people out of their cars) and supply (building better streets and more public transit). If Beijing simply bans half its cars every day -- like the way it banned rain at the Olympic opening ceremony -- it would only be delaying bigger problems down the road. It will be a long, hard road, but it doesn't need to be crowded or dirty.
Previously on Treehugger:
China's Car Obsession
Must See: China's Driving Dream and Its $6000 Car
China's Automotive Era Kicks Into High Gear
Young Chinese: Cars First, Then Sustainable Consumption
Why China Loves Transformers (And Why We Should All Be A Little Worried
China's Car Problems
China's Public Enemy No. 1 (Times 20000 Per Day)
Dude! Where Can I Park My Car in China?
NASA Satellite Tracks Movement of Pollution from East Asia to the US
Beijing's No Car Days
China Raises Taxes on Big Cars (Up to 40%), Lowers Them on Small Cars
China's New Hybrid Cars: Almost Affordable in China
In China, Winning Girls and Glory -- Without a Car
China: Keep Them Pigeons Rolling!