China Keeps Car Rules Imposed for Olympics

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 2, 2008

BEIJING, Oct. 1 -- The government began taking 30 percent of its cars in the capital off the roads Wednesday in an attempt to make permanent some of the traffic restrictions imposed during the Olympic Games, officials and media reports said.

Beginning Oct. 11, Chinese motorists will also stop driving one workday a week, based on the final number on their license plates. The new rules should take 800,000 vehicles off the roads each day, according to reports quoting Wang Zhaorong of Beijing's Municipal Traffic Committee. There are 3.5 million cars in Beijing, and more than 1,000 vehicles are added each day, according to government statistics.

The attempt to manage traffic is one of the first concrete signs of possible lasting change as a result of the Olympics. The new restrictions come as the capital's traffic has once again surged and as smoggy skies have returned following the lifting of rules imposed from July 20 to Sept. 20 for the Olympics and the Paralympic Games. In an all-out effort to try to clear the air for millions of athletes and visitors, Beijing ordered more than a million cars off the roads, shut down polluting factories and halted heavy truck traffic.

Many in China seemed to approve, taking to the Internet to mostly praise the measures, which in the end produced bluer skies and generally smoother traffic flows. A survey of 5,058 people by the New Beijing News last month showed 68.9 percent supported the traffic controls based on odd- and even-numbered license plates, 19 percent objected to them and 12.1 percent had no opinion. Asked what they would do if the restrictions were to continue, 18 percent of interviewees said they would buy another car.

"Recently, it takes me nearly twice as long to commute than it did during the Olympics," said Zhang Fengyan, 30, an appliance salesman. "The difference is too big. I'd love it if they can make this rule permanent."

There were some problems during the Olympics: A special Olympic lane meant that cars had to crowd into two remaining lanes, and the slower traffic produced greater emissions, experts and officials said. The city's air pollution index initially climbed despite the restrictions.

The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau declined to release details about pollution components, which would have allowed outside experts to monitor progress.

The air pollution index, which is based on an average from 27 monitoring stations across the city, has increased recently, from 26 last Wednesday to 104 a week later. Anything above 100 is considered dangerous to the health of sensitive individuals.

It was unclear how the city would enforce the provision that 30 percent of government cars not take to the streets. Government spokesmen were unavailable because of a nationwide holiday, and the immediate impact was difficult to determine.

In addition to the traffic changes, businesses will begin staggering their hours, with large department stores opening at 10 a.m. and other offices beginning work between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m., state media reports said. Parking fees downtown will also be increased to encourage people to use public transportation. The rules will last until April, when officials will decide whether to continue the restrictions.

Car salesman Liu Ce, manager of Beijing Xinshan Trade Center, said the city should do more to improve public transportation "so that people will choose public transportation naturally instead of forcing people to do so or irritating people who want to buy new cars."

Others questioned whether government drivers would obey the new rule and said motorists feel overwhelmed.

"Drivers already feel numb," said telecommunications engineer Li Haibin, 29. "People got used to the faster driving times during the last few months. Now, wherever I go, there's a traffic jam."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company