- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

BEIJING | Beijing is bracing for a shutdown of construction and restrictions on cars and factories as Chinese officials work to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion to tolerable levels before the opening of the Olympics next month.

The latest initiatives, which begin Sunday, feature a two-month ban on construction, the temporary closure of high-polluting factories and a restriction on private cars on city streets. Vehicles will only be allowed out on alternate days, depending on whether their license plates end in an odd or an even number.

The vehicle restrictions, in place from July 20 to Sept. 20, are expected to keep half of the city’s 3.3 million vehicles off city roads during the Olympic games. The games run from Aug. 8 to Aug. 24, and the Paralympic Games run from Sept. 6 to Sept. 17.

To accommodate commuters affected by the restrictions, the city on Sunday is expected to open two new subway lines and a new rail line. The new lines are in addition to a subway line that opened in October. Officials also plan to add bus service and to open more than 100 bicycle-rental stands.

Additional vehicle restrictions went into effect July 1, when officials in the city of roughly 17 million banned about 300,000 vehicles that don’t meet Euro I emission standards - the lowest of the European emission standards.

Chen Quan Jing, a teacher in the city, said banning the high-emission cars has had an impact.

“It usually takes me 30 to 40 minutes to get to work,” said Ms. Chen, who lives near the Olympic stadium, “but now it only takes about 20 minutes.”

In addition to reducing traffic, the plan is designed to improve the notoriously poor air quality in the city of 17 million, which Chinese government and Olympic officials have long feared could interfere with the summer games.

The International Olympic Committee said in March it could be forced to postpone endurance events, such as the marathon or the triathlon, if pollution is too heavy.

News reports say Beijing has spent as much as $17 billion in environmental cleanup efforts before the Olympics, and the Chinese government claims air-quality improvements that have dramatically increased the number of “blue sky” days.

A “blue sky” day is defined as a day in which the Air Pollution Index (API) is less than 100 out of a scale of 500.

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection reported Beijing had a record 246 blue sky days last year and this year had 15 more “blue sky” days through July 15.

However, independent environmental consultant Steven Q. Andrews in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in January questioned the government’s claims of cleaner skies. Mr. Andrews said Chinese officials had moved air-quality measuring equipment once in the center of the city to areas outside the city with less pollution.

“In 2006, however, just as international scrutiny on China’s air quality was increasing, two stations monitoring traffic were dropped from the city API calculations, while three additional stations in less-polluted areas were added,” he wrote.

He also noted the statistical oddity of a large number of days in which the air pollution level was just below the 100 level, making it a “blue sky” day.

Beijing has denied it manipulated its monitoring practices, pointing instead to air-quality improvements.

Whether the air is cleaner or not, the efforts are resonating with Beijing residents.

“The air is a lot better this year,” said Huo Jun who works for a nongovernmental organization. “It has rained more this year but the efforts of common people and the government to address the problem have helped a lot.”

Hai Ji Ming, a migrant worker from Henan province said, “Beijing doesn’t have an air-pollution problem.”

The ban on construction and the temporary closing of factories is also expected to have an effect on Beijing’s large population of migrant workers who come from the countryside to find work.

Some workers said they will be returning home for the Olympic period, while others will find jobs helping with Olympic preparations such as arranging flowers around the city.

Asked what he thought of the restrictions that would require him to leave his current construction job and find work helping with Olympic preparation, Hai Ji Ming said, “I welcome the changes if they will help the Olympics go well.”

Wu Ling Tao, a migrant worker from Jiangsu province, said he plans to return home Sunday.

“They’ll have the Olympics, and I’ll go my way,” he said.

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