Beijing's Car Ban Keeps on Truckin'


Flickr: kk+

Just as we're getting excited about China's drive towards electric vehicles, Beijing has announced it will extend the car restrictions that began ahead of the Olympics, reducing the city's fast growing private car population by a fifth every day.

Officials have said the restrictions have already kept emissions down by 375 tons daily, or 10%. And a new measure to extend a ban on high-polluting cars and trucks from the center to cover the whole city will save a similar amount, it estimated, meaning a total reduction of about 750 tons of emissions, or 20 percent. This isn't a permanent fix for Beijing's traffic woes, but it's one of the best hopes for cleaner air in the short term.The weekday rules, which take a fifth of the city's fast-growing fleet of private cars off the roads each day, restrict cars based on the last digit of their license plate numbers. Those ending in 0 or 5 are restricted from driving on Monday, those ending in 1 or 6 will be banned on Tuesday, and so on.

Even though problematic air quality statistics still need to be taken with a grain of MSG, the rules have likely contributed to recent improvements in the city's notoriously soupy air. Authorities just announced that Beijing had experienced six more "blue sky days" than in the first quarter of last year, and 24.3 days more than the average of the last decade. Still, as Vance Wagner notes at Live From Beijing, the first quarter's average of 124 mg of PM10 per cubic meter is similar to last year's average. And it's unclear if the improvement is due to the traffic ban, new emissions technology, helpful air flows or reduced coal use during the economic recession.

But restrictions can work wonders. The city's strict bans on emissions from cars, factories and power plants during the Olympic Games led to a dramatic, if only temporary, reduction in NO2 and CO. A study by no less than NASA confirmed it:

The [Olympic] emission restrictions had an unmistakable impact. During the two months when restrictions were in place, the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) -- a noxious gas resulting from fossil fuel combustion (primarily in cars, trucks, and power plants) -- plunged nearly 50 percent. Likewise, levels of carbon monoxide (CO) fell about 20 percent.

Not surprisingly, not everyone supports the government's extension of the driving ban, citing unfairness and the ease with which it might be circumvented. "I believe the ban will only drive many rich people to evade the restrictions by buying another car," bank worker Chen Tao told China Daily. "It is just unfair for people like me, who bought a car because I live too far from the office and want to waste less time on buses, but can't afford a second one."

Some are also skeptical that the ban will continue to improve the city's terrible traffic. But the city's transportation committee estimated the new rules will take 930,000 of the city's 3.6 million vehicles off the road each weekday and increase driving speeds by 10 percent. In the previous trial, speed increased by 14.7 percent on average.

But the majority of Beijingers appear to support the ban, as Elizabeth Balkan writes at Sustainablog. Not surprising given the impact that cars have on quality of life in the Chinese capital. Authorities are already undertaking a raft of measures to improve transportation, from new subway and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines to a "cash-for-clunkers" plan. Not yet on the table: a congestion charge as in Singapore or London, or high prices for license plates, as in Shanghai.

While the ban, which lingered in political limbo for some time, is set to expire on April 10, 2010, it's unlikely in the foreseeable future that the city will scale back its progressive emission reduction efforts. Look for it to continue after next April -- or become even stricter.

Via China Daily

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