Beijing has not done enough to control cars
The Beijing city government is constantly evolving strategies to guarantee cleaner air in Beijing. "We have to take all possible measures--strict controls on car emissions, dust and dirt, energy consumption and industrial emissions," He Kebin says. When Beijing bid to host the Olympics, it promised to spend us $12.3 billion and carry out a 350 point programme to improve the city's environment.
The Beijing government has a two-pronged plan long-term structural reforms and emergency measures. Every year the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau announces a package for each sector to reduce pollution levels, says Li Kunsheng, its vice-director (see box Action plan). Achievement levels vary across sectors--80-90 per cent in industry; 50-60 per cent in construction; and over 90 per cent in transport over the past few years.
Car density is skyrocketing. Beijing has to take tough action to control it
Beijing's planners are trying to deal with an explosive growth of vehicles. It took 48 years for the first million automobiles to appear in Beijing in 1997, but only six years for the second million. Between 2003 and 2007, Beijing added a million more. Over 1,200 new cars hit the city's roads every day, adding to the fleet of 3.2 million.
|A huge growth in vehicle numbers threatens to undo Beijing's emission control plans|
Beijing residents recall that until the 1990s the car market was restricted since the government was the major buyer of vehicles. This started changing in the late 1990s. Private cars have now comfortably overtaken the almost million-strong fleet of government vehicles. While at the national level there are 13 cars per 1,000 people, in Beijing there are 100. Two-wheelers are not allowed in the inner city. They are confined to the outer limits.
Diesel cars are, however, not allowed in the city. "Diesel cars have not been encouraged in Beijing because they emit more particles and nox," says Li. The price of diesel and petrol is nearly the same, surely a fiscal measure worth emulating.
Even so, the ramifications of the car boom are massive. More than half of nox and as much as 41 per cent of volatile organic compounds (vocs) come from cars. nox and vocs form a deadly recipe for ozone and secondary particles. The contribution of vehicles--largely buses and trucks--to particulate matter is 14 per cent.
Car density is increasing at a frightening pace but they meet less than a quarter of commuting needs. A World Bank study of 2006 has reported a rapid fall in peak traffic speed in Beijing--45 km/hour in 1994, 33 in 1995, 20 in 1996, 12 in 2003 and 10 in 2005. Congestion is now spreading rapidly from the first and second ring road in the inner city to beyond the third and fourth ring roads in the suburbs.
Beijing will find it hard to control cars, having encouraged car ownership through roadway expansion and inexpensive licensing and registration. The road network in the Beijing metropolitan area expanded by 24 per cent between 1996 and 2004; the inner road network grew several times.
Beijing's investment in new roads has been averaging four times its investment in public transport. The city has begun to build 77 roads and bridges, most of these concentrated in the northern part of the city around the Olympic park. But the unep report of 2007 has raised doubts about whether they will succeed in providing any noticeable environmental benefit or relieve congestion.
Beijing has moved exceptionally fast in implementing emissions standards. But it needs similar movement in other areas
This is not to say that Beijing is not working to clean up its act. Few cities have moved as fast to meet standards as Beijing. Lixin Fu of Tshinghua University, who is involved with the vehicle emissions control programme, says "Since total emissions from vehicles are expected to go up with the rising numbers of vehicles, quick stabilization and control is necessary." Beijing implemented Euro I standards in 1999, Euro II in 2003 and Euro III-equivalent in 2005. Euro IV fuel standards were in place in January 2008, those for vehicles will kick in soon.
In the initial stages the automobile industry resisted, complaining about tight deadlines. "During 2002-03 tax incentives were given to industry to advance introduction of Euro II vehicles," says Tom Dagang, director-general, Vehicle Emissions Control Centre of the state's Environmental Protection Agency. There had also been protracted negotiations with the Beijing refinery and Sinopec, one of China's major oil companies, to provide appropriate fuels quickly.
Beijing has pushed for cleaner fuels for its buses, including natural gas and lpg. Nearly 4,000 city buses now use natural gas. But this fleet is not expanding because of competing, and rising, domestic and industrial demand for natural gas. Now diesel buses are also moving to meet Euro IV standards, with dedicated supply of Euro IV fuels for buses having begun in 2007--which is still not available in India. Before the games, Beijing will phase out old vehicles or upgrade heavy-duty vehicles; retrofit old buses with particulate traps; encourage hybrid and electric vehicles; and ensure that all the vehicles on the roads are compliant with vehicle emission standards.
Since 2001, the city government has begun to label vehicles according to emissions standards. Pre-Euro I vehicles and those without catalytic converters cannot enter the city centre. These vehicles will be completely kept out during the games.
Beijing has upgraded emissions testing facilities, which are more advanced than India's. There are 43 testing centres with an annual capacity up to 3 million vehicles. New vehicles have onboard diagnostic systems. Emission inspections are carried out regularly at the main entrances of the city. City authorities are now sealing oil vapour leaks to reduce vocs. All fuel storage tanks and fuel unloading and filling systems have to install sealing systems to capture vapourized fuel. Any facility that fails to do so will be closed down before June.
Despite all this, sceptics say the chances of increasing blue sky days are dim as cars continue to roll off assembly lines.
When private cars began to take over the roads, Beijing failed to react. Now it is in overdrive to give public transport a leg up
Walking and cycling were central to Beijing life before the automobile boom began. When it did, city authorities did not have the foresight to move towards a robust public transport system. While in some Chinese cities the share of public transport in the commuting load has increased by 67 per cent between 1996 and 2004, in Beijing it has increased by only 46 per cent. Public transport meets just a fourth of the commuting demand in the city.
Beijing started upscaling public transport systems only after it won the Olympics bid. It aims to have at least 50 per cent of residents using public transport by 2010. The network of metro, light rail and bus rapid transit system is expanding--the number of buses has quadrupled to more than 18,000 (see box Public transport).Beijing now has four subway lines totalling 114 km. According to the municipal government, Beijing will add three subway lines in 2008, with the total reaching 200 km. It is expanding the bus rapid transit network from the current 16 km to 100 km by 2008. The authorities are talking about institutionalizing a "Green Commute Day" to urge residents to get to work by foot, bicycle, bus or subway, as the metro is called there.
"While public transport systems are being expanded, concurrent policies are needed to improve their ridership," says Ma Lin, vice-director, Urban Transport Centre, Ministry of Construction. Officials claim there has been a rise in ridership. Ma says recent drastic cuts in fares have made a difference. For long, subway and light rail fares were three times bus fares. Estimates showed the average monthly cost of a daily round trip on the subway and light rail system in Beijing was more than half of the total income of families below the poverty level. In January 2007, subway fares were slashed by about 30 per cent. A single pricing system, with a one-way ticket costing just 2 yuan (us $0.28), down from 3 yuan (us $0.42), has been introduced. Bus fares can go as low as us $0.20.
Such low fares need big subsidies. For now, the city government is paying. According to the Ministry of Construction, it is pumping in a subsidy of at least 4 billion yuan (just over us $550 million) into the bus system and 2 billion yuan (just over us $275 million) into the subway system. Can this continue after the games? Beijing says they won't be cut afterwards.
Transport experts in the city feel that such subsidies can become viable in the longer term only if these are counterbalanced with taxes on private cars or other fiscal measures. But, clearly, the government hesitates to curtail the aspirations of the rich and the growing middle class. Even though proposals for higher oil taxes, ownership taxes and congestion charges have begun to hog policy discussions in the city, actual action has not been possible. "We are developing a framework," Ma says. A hesitant step has been taken to reassess parking policy to reduce congestion (see box Parking brakes).
Beijing remains averse to restricting car ownership, not accepting the Shanghai model for doing so. In 2000, Shanghai had tightened restrictions on new car registrations, auctioning off a limited number of licences annually. During the first year of the new programme, Shanghai had issued 14,000 plates for an average price of us $1,700. The upper limit today is 7,500 cars per month. And the average auction price of licences can be as high as us $5,000. Beijing authorities dismiss this system as being "without any legal basis".
The bus rapid transit system Beijing has put in place is the centrepiece of it public transport initiatives. It is thriving
The thrust area is the bus rapid transit system. Interest in this grew because the conventional bus system got snared in increasing traffic congestion. Average bus speeds dropped to 9-10 km/hour. Bus passengers began to shift to either railways or cars. Beijing will have six lines of the bus rapid system before the Olympic Games.
It is fascinating to watch the bus rapid system control room that monitors nearly 90 low-floor buses through gps to keep them running punctually. Liu Daizong, senior engineer in the China Sustainable Transportation Centre, who is involved with the rapid bus system projects, says the target is to have 140 buses to allow high-frequency services. The system has weaned people away from conventional buses.
Along the rapid bus route that connects Demaozhuang to Qianmen, people throng the bus stations, moving in and out of buses with ease, and feel the delight of moving at a speed of at least 25 km/hour when cars are jammed in the next lane. It is easy to change over from this line to the subway. Liu shows how interchange points have been planned to allow this.
Beijing is optimistic about controlling traffic congestion and pollution by making public transport attractive and cheap, and if necessary by forcibly banning cars as a temporary measure during the Olympics. But without a more active long-term policy to control the number of vehicles, Beijing can lose most of its gains it has made.
Beijing was a walking, cycling city. Its car mania has changed that
The biggest casualty of Beijing's car mania is cycling and walking, the city's rich legacy. The combined walking and cycling share has already fallen from 66 per cent in 1986 to 39 per cent despite an infrastructure of sidewalks, crosswalks, bike paths and special traffic signals for pedestrians and cyclists. Suburban expansion, longer distances of travel and the growing number of cars are the major factors. Since 2000, Beijing, like many other Chinese cities, has begun to restrict cycling on key arteries and central city streets.
Despite the odds, a tour of glitzy shopping malls and business centres shows islands of bicycle parking. Beijing has even faced public reaction against the neglect of bikes. "The 'Beijing for bikes' movement is a reaction to the growing numbers of cars," says Hu Huizhe of the Beijing-based ngo Friends of Nature. Volunteers have organized cycling rallies to draw attention to the issue and made representations to the government for action.
In 2006, the central government recommended preserving cycling facilities. A bicycle rental scheme was announced in Beijing in 2007. A total of 50,000 bicycles will be put up for rent across the city ahead of the Olympic Games. New bicycles will be available at 230 outlets close to subway stations, commercial districts, Olympic venues, hotels and office buildings as well as in big communities.
Public awareness is growing. "People recognize that a big change has happened within a very short period. However, civil society involvement in clean air issues is limited, largely because of lack of capacity," Hu says.
Beijing has been reasonably aggressive in taming industrial pollution. It needs to do more to outlaw dirty technologies
Having achieved mixed results in its attempts at controlling vehicular pollution, Beijing's crackdown on polluting industries has to be uncompromising if it wants to meet its commitments. Getting reliable estimates is difficult. unep' s 2007 report cites data from the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau which show that in 2006, of 2,699 industrial enterprises, 323 were the main polluters. This was after relocating a number of units.
Beijing authorities have relocated and refitted polluting units the shift from coal to less polluting fuels like natural gas has not, however, been hugely successful. Of the six power plants in the city, only two have moved to natural gas. The rest remain coal-based, albeit with measures for desulphurization and pm and nox control in place.
The Beijing municipal plan includes relocation of industries and standards for boilers, construction material, metallurgy industries and chemical industries (see box Cleaning up). But these may not be enough. The Beijing municipal government may have to suspend or reduce production of power plants and industries during the games.
As Beijing prepares for the games, the city has become one big construction site--this has resulted in high levels of dust from building sites. All of them are scheduled to close during the games to improve air quality.
Though the green Olympics have recalibrated Beijing's economy and energy systems, pollution levels in the city continue to violate blue sky standards, casting doubts on the long-term sustainability of the measures put in place to improve air quality. "Beijing is doing just about all that one can reasonably expect and yet problems remain. It is pushing very aggressively. As we have learned in the us, after 40 years of effort, there is considerable progress yet problems remain. It is hard to have millions of internal combustion vehicles riding around and also have clean air," observes Michael Walsh, a vehicle technology expert who has been involved in policy research on vehicular emissions in China.
Short of long-term options, Beijing has to re-examine the Shanghai model of vehicle control, which scored 328 "excellent and good air quality days" in 2007, in relation to the same national standards.