While the XXIX Olympiad undoubtedly focussed the collective global consciousness on Beijing and the burgeoning economic miracle that is China, it also served to reinforce the concerns that many had voiced over the country’s dire environmental record. For a long time, discussions of “blue sky” days dominated the airwaves and even though they never threatened to eclipse thoughts of gold, silver and bronze, for the Beijing Games blue will always be remembered alongside these more traditional Olympic colours.

But the more serious question was always going to be what happened when the eyes of the world looked away. Would there be an environmental Olympic legacy as some predicted or would the China of old gradually re-emerge, shrouded in smog and pollution?

From a road traffic perspective the answer has surprised many – and hints at the possibility that Asia’s giant may at last be moving towards its own era of environmental awareness.

Odd or even

During the Olympics vehicles were banned from entering the city on alternate days depending on whether their licence plate ended in an odd or an even number. The upshot was easier traffic flow, 10% faster average speeds and cleaner skies – leading to calls for the restrictions to be made permanent.

“Car owners argued that halving the time they could use their vehicles was simply too draconian.”

Despite this, Beijing’s residents were not unanimous in their support for the bans. While no-one was excited about a return to the haze-laden air of before, car owners argued that halving the time they could use their vehicles was simply too draconian. Given recent history such authoritarianism is little welcomed and as the Paralympic Games drew to its close, officials announced that the odds-and-evens policy would not be extended beyond its original 20 September deadline. The sceptics of eco-China, it seemed, had been right – it was to be back to business as normal.

However, this pessimism was soon to prove somewhat unjustified. On the 11 October, new traffic restrictions came into force in the capital which will force some 70% of government vehicles as well as all corporate and private cars banned from the city for one of the five weekdays. In a city of 16 million, home to some 3.5 million cars – a total growing by over 1,000 new vehicles a day – taking a fifth of them off the road at any one time adds up to a big difference. Not as big as during the Games, admittedly, but a difference all the same.

The new bans run until April 2009 by which time officials hope the benefits will make its permanent adoption inevitable. The ripples are already being felt elsewhere and in November Shanghai implemented its own similar traffic restrictions – although watered them down to exclude private cars only.

Finding another route

“Using so blunt an instrument to reduce pollution runs the risk of forcing the country’s economic and environmental goals into diametric opposition.”

Nevertheless, the approach is not without its critics and as Gu Wen, columnist in China Daily, commented: “Some argue that pulling cars from the roads now and then might look like a simplistic approach to a complex issue and represent poor urban management skills.” With the oil and car industries forming essential – and largely state-owned – pillars of China’s growth machine, using so blunt an instrument to reduce pollution runs the risk of forcing the country’s economic and environmental goals into diametric opposition.

Clearly this is in no one’s best interests, particularly since Chinese officials have long been pursuing a programme of unparalleled road-building coupled with an explosive expansion of the car market. Since 2002, the sector has grown by over three times and now represents the world’s second largest market after the US. In 2007, around 4.7 million cars were sold across China – nearly 25% more than the previous year – with some 300,000 being imported. The Chinese love affair with the car is not likely to come to an end soon and while traffic restrictions are unquestionably a worthwhile start, there is a clear case for finding other complementary ways to tackle environmental issues.

Clean transport for all

Inevitably, public transport will always feature in any discussion of reducing road pollution and traffic congestion, but for Beijing there may be even more merit than usual in the idea. Although the levels promised for the Olympics were not to materialise entirely, the dream is not to be abandoned. The massive planned expansion in the city’s public transport – destined to turn the existing subway system into the world’s largest underground railway – will be one of the main planks in Beijing’s green Olympic legacy.

Despite their adoration of the car it seems residents can still be persuaded to use public transport particularly when, as during the Olympics, prices were slashed by between 30% and 60% – resulting in a 10% rise in daily passenger numbers. It is, then, little surprise that Zhou Zhengyu, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Committee, announced that these reduced ticket prices would continue for “some time”.

But public transport alone seems unlikely to be about to provide the whole solution. Aside from the rapidly accelerating numbers of cars, there are around 10 million trucks on China’s roads – accounting for over 25% of all road vehicles and burning notoriously sulphur-rich diesel.

“Not only is the car industry too important to the economy, it is also too important to the newly prosperous middle classes.”

So, if weaning the Chinese off road transport is to be mired in difficulty then cleaner technology has to be the way to go and a number of useful initial steps have already been taken in this direction. While hybrid or electric cars remain prohibitively expensive at the moment, China has made great strides in both adopting Euro IV enhanced emissions standards for new cars and switching a substantial fleet of buses to run on Compressed Natural Gas.

The Government has also begun to implement direct fiscal measures designed to move the country’s economy towards greater energy-efficiency and environmental-friendliness with taxes on 4-litre cars doubling from September while those on vehicles below 1000cc fell by two-thirds.

Engaging in the challenge

Restricting road traffic undoubtedly brought benefits to Beijing in the short term. It also seems likely that it will continue to do so in its modified form throughout the six month trial and – as seems likely – beyond. However, even if all of China’s growing cities were to adopt similar measures, car bans will not solve the problem alone. Not only is the car industry too important to the economy, it is also too important to the newly prosperous Chinese middle classes and both are too important to the Government.

If China is to become an environmentally-focussed society then the measures that bring it about must in themselves be sustainable. Changing the behaviour and aspirations of an entire population is unlikely to be achieved quickly, but perhaps China’s biggest Olympic legacy is the new willingness of all sides to engage in the debate.