Beijing traffic

+ With NO2 emissions up to 75% higher than they could be, Beijing needs radical action to reduce car use.

As Michael Kwok noted recently here on Thoughts, China is addressing its chronic air pollution. But I don’t think it will succeed unless it can reduce car use rapidly.

In October I found myself at the centre of the issue when I entered the Beijing Marathon. On the morning of the race, the concentration of PM2.5 particulate matter was over twelve times the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit. Despite running with a facemask, I stopped after 10km because of the pollution and found myself being interviewed by the BBC.

Unfortunately, the situation is likely to take a long time to turn around. Coal, vehicles and heavy industry in surrounding provinces are the main causes of Beijing’s smog, which is made worse as the pollutants mix together in the city’s air and become trapped by a ring of mountains to the north.

There are now more than 5.5m cars on the streets of Beijing alone, up from just two million a decade ago. Vehicle exhaust standards lag behind the West, mainly due to a lack of high-quality fuel that could enable the latest worldwide standards to be implemented. Thus NO2 emissions are up to 75% higher than they could be.

Beijing has already implemented severe restrictions on new car ownership and is considering a congestion charge. Its subway system has grown in length from 53km to 465km since 1999, and the city is investing RMB400bn over the next five years to take this to 1,000km. Its cycle hire system, introduced in 2011, will have 50,000 bikes by the end of 2015 – the most extensive in any capital city.

Yet the city still experiences frequent gridlock. Drastic measures are needed if there is to be an improvement, and I believe the city authorities should be still more aggressive.

Put the congestion charge into effect as soon as possible. Stop adding capacity to the roads. Rigorously enforce traffic regulations. Add premiums for travel on public transport in peak hours (with considerations for the less well-off). Use this revenue to promote cycling and walking by creating a safer and more pleasant environment.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Urban Development Initiative, which gathers experts to study the challenges faced by cities as they urbanise, has already come to similar conclusions. The three Chinese pilot cities it has studied to date (Tianjin, Dalian and Zhangjiakou) recommend a variety of strategies for reducing car use, including promoting transit-oriented development and attention to the last mile between transport hubs and final destinations.

Such concepts are already well grounded in many cities, but it is essential to implement them rapidly in China to change behaviours before car dependency becomes ingrained.

Yet we cannot just wait for others to clear the smog cloud: we must all take some responsibility for our materialistic, high-energy society. As one Chinese runner at the marathon noted:

"Everybody complains about [the smog], but nobody does anything. Nobody rides a bicycle instead of driving a car."

The irony is that Beijing used to be a city of bicycles.