Sunday saw the start of two months of vehicle control in Beijing to ease traffic pressure and improve air quality for the Olympic Games.
Beijing's drivers found much fewer vehicles on the road and a much smoother drive in the morning, partly because it was on the weekend but largely because of the vehicle restrictions.
According to a short-term traffic rule effective from July 20 through September 20, vehicles with even and odd plates run on alternate days in the metropolis, which boasts 3.29 million vehicles.
Traffic was smooth during the morning peak hour. From the Liuliqiao Bridge on the southwest third ring road to Beitucheng on the northeast of the north third ring road, a normally one-hour-plus drive took only half an hour in the morning.
Lin Fengjiang, who has an odd-number car plate, said he opted for the bus because of the restrictions.
"It's ok with me. The bus runs very fast today. It's even more time-efficient than driving a car," said the office worker.
Yao Zhenping, assistant to the general manager of the Beijing Public Transport Holdings Group, said monitoring showed that more than 95 percent of the buses reached the stops according to the timetable, something that was impossible on congested roads.
The city authorities said the restriction, along with an earlier ban on the use of vehicles which failed to meet emission standards, would drive 2 million cars off the roads to ease traffic and improve air quality for the Games.
With the restriction rule, an additional 4 million people were expected to resort to the public transport system due to the vehicle use control, according to the city government.
The restriction rule was applied to both vehicles which registered in Beijing and non-Beijing vehicles which drove on Beijing's streets during July 20-September 20 period.
But those vehicles which were used to transport fresh vegetable into Beijing were free of the rule, said the city government.
Car emissions have been considered as one of the major sources of air pollution in Beijing. The atmospheric pollution in Beijing is caused by a combination of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, which largely came from exhaust emissions, environmentalists said.
He Kebin, a professor at the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering of Tsinghua University, said almost all major indicators of Beijing's air quality had met the requirements of the Olympic Games except for the indicator of the inhalable particulate matter.
"Vehicles contribute more than 50 percent of the pollution caused by the inhalable particulate matter, so the restriction of vehicle use is the most effective way to solve the problem," said He.
Environmental experts estimated that the vehicle-use restriction and the ban on the use of vehicles which failed to meet emission standards will cut car emission by 63 percent, or about 118,000 tons of pollutants, for Beijing in the next two months.
The vehicle-use restriction won applause from Beijing residents. According to a survey conducted by the Beijing Social Facts & Public Opinion Survey Center, 94.8 percent of the respondents supported the rule, which was 5.9 percentage points higher than last year's approval rate.
During August 17 to 20 of 2007, Beijing had carried out a four-day test run of even-odd traffic control to clear the city's air.
Also on Sunday, Beijing started implementing another two-month-long measure to ease traffic pressures and reduce air pollution -- the change working hours.
The city government said it encourages people to work flexible hours or work at home if possible.
Working hours for companies will be set from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Public institutions will begin work at 9:30 AM, one hour later than normal. Shopping malls will open no earlier than 10:00 AM and stay open longer, until 10:00 PM or even later.
Over the past years, Beijing has been working aggressively in a bid to improve its oft-criticized air quality.
Beijing municipal government said it had poured more than 140 billion yuan (US$20.5 billion) since 1998 into more than 200 projects dedicated to improving the city's air quality.
Such efforts have paid off. The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said the city's air quality had been continuously improving since 1998.
The "blue sky" days, or days with fairly good air quality, for the entire year of 2007 had jumped to 246 from 100 recorded in 1998, said the bureau.
In 2007, the densities of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in Beijing's air were 60.8 percent, 39.4 percent, 10.8 percent and 17.8 percent lower than in 1998, according to the bureau.
(Xinhua News Agency July 21, 2008)