August 17, 2007 at 5:19 AM EDT
BEIJING — Beijing embarked on a four-day experiment on Friday to see if taking 1.3 million cars off the city's streets would substantially reduce air pollution at next year's Beijing Olympics.
While officials said it would take some time to judge the impact of the measures, the hazy skies above the Chinese capital suggested they may need to do more to ensure good air when the world's best athletes arrive next August.
Beijing is closing down the worst-polluting factories and switching thousands of homes from coal to gas use but air quality remains the biggest concern for organizers.
The city's car tally hit the three million mark in May and more than 1,000 more are registered every day, snarling up the roads and pumping nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter into the air.
“The traffic restrictions will definitely reduce vehicle pollutants and will work effectively,” Du Shaozhong, spokesman for Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau, told reporters.
“The exact evaluation of the facts of the transportation control will not be released until relevant data is collected and analyzed by the experts.”
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge said last week that some endurance events at next year's Games might have to be postponed if the air quality is not good enough.
“Today's air quality is National Standard Grade 2 — Grades 1 and 2 are suitable for any activity,” said Mr. Du.
An air pollution expert at the World Health Organisation (WHO), however, was on Friday quoted as saying people with heart problems should think twice about visiting Beijing as they could face "serious problems" because of the pollution.
Dr. Michal Krzyzanowski said he doubted there would be much improvement in the city's air quality by Games' time and that the car control measures might not have too great an effect.
"Particles have the ability of travelling thousands of kilometres in the air," he told the BBC.
"So it's possible the beneficial effect of cutting the traffic in the city will be compensated by the transport of pollution from other parts of China."
From 6:00 a.m. until midnight on Friday drivers with an even final digit on their licence plate would face fines if they took to the city roads.
Odd-numbered cars will be banned on Saturday and Monday, while vehicles with even numbers must also stay off the roads on Sunday.
By lunch on Friday, the plan appeared to be working, with fewer cars along the broad, tree-lined avenues.
One traffic policeman told Reuters television he had only picked up one even-numbered car plate in 11/2 hours.
To deal with the extra burden on public transport, city authorities increased rush-hour services on buses and the metro.
“Today is much faster than it normally is, there aren't as many jams,” said one conductor, while a passenger who normally drives to work said she would probably use the bus again.
“Its very convenient, actually, it's no more trouble than taking the car.”
Seoul used a similar traffic control measure when it hosted the Olympics in 1988, while Athens had battled its pollution and congestion problems with the same tactics for more than a decade before it held the Games in 2004.
Some sports coaches and athletes are concerned that air quality tests in China and the National Standards do not record levels of ozone and smaller particulate matter.
“Our National Standard is based on our own situation, our own needs,” Mr. Du explained. “But when setting it we also learnt from international practice.
“We have noticed that these secondary pollutants have some influence on the human body, so we have taken some measures to reduce these pollutants.”