BEIJING, July 20 – Beijing residents enjoyed the novelty of congestion-free streets Sunday as the city launched strict driving curbs to rein in its notorious air pollution and traffic for the Olympics.
Traffic on the capital’s normally jammed roads was noticeably light, even for a weekend, amid the new rules which ban cars with odd- and even-numbered licence plates from the roads on alternate days.
"It’s great. It’s like driving in the middle of the night. This will be a big help for the Olympics," attorney Fan Wenling said as she climbed into her car for a morning trip to her office.
The rules, in effect until September 20, are part of a wider campaign to try to clear the air in Beijing, which is one of the world’s most polluted cities and is typically wrapped in acrid smog.
The skies above the city of more than 17 million appeared clearer than usual by Sunday afternoon, although it was impossible to tell whether that was due to the driving curbs or to weather conditions.
Beijing conducted a four-day test of similar driving restrictions last August during which the normally hazy conditions persisted.
Although industrial emissions and other sources are also factors, the largest source of Beijing’s pollution is believed to be the emissions from the city’s 3.3 million vehicles.
Those ranks swell by an estimated 1,000 cars per day as an economic booms allows more Beijing residents to afford the luxury of their own car.
International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge warned last year that poor air quality during the August 8-24 Games could result in the suspension of some events, particularly endurance races such as the marathon.
Some of the 10,000 athletes due in Beijing for the Games also have expressed health fears.
The new measures will not be truly tested until Monday, when the city’s millions of commuters take to the roads under the new regime.
The city on Saturday opened three new subway lines built as part of a pre-Olympic infrastructure upgrade that are expected to absorb an increase in daily ridership to 21 million passengers trips from the usual 16 million due to the curbs.
Unlike last year’s trial, authorities this time are taking other steps including shutting down polluting industries in the region around Beijing and halting construction in the city.
Businesses also are being pressured to adjust their working hours to cut down on rush-hour gridlock.
Only cars with even-numbered licence plates were allowed on the streets Sunday, and motorcycle police could be seen at key intersections watching the traffic.
Motorists face a fine of 100 yuan (14 dollars) for driving on the wrong day, according to the city’s transportation bureau.
Despite rising affluence in Beijing, a 100-yuan fine remains a significant deterrent for many in China, where annual incomes remain far lower than those in developed countries.
The restrictions will not apply to taxis, and some cab drivers welcomed the chance to earn more, but worried about overwork.
"I think there will be more money to be made but you will probably have to work harder to make it and I don’t want to because I have to be home to see my 12-year-old daughter," said cab driver Ma Guiwei.
"But it will be nice to drive on better road conditions for a while," she added.