To clear the air, Beijing is trying to clear its streets

With the Olympics less than three weeks away, authorities Sunday ordered half of Beijing's 3.3 million vehicles off city streets for two months in an experiment designed to remove a smoggy halo over the capital and ease traffic jams before the Olympics.

With the prospect of competitors wearing masks during events, poor air quality is a major concern for the Aug. 8-24 Summer Games. Already, a few high-profile athletes, citing the pollution problem, have pulled out.

World-record-holder and asthma sufferer Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia has said he won't run the marathon and will concentrate instead on the 10,000-meter event. Other teams are training for as long as possible outside China.

On Sunday, patrolling tow trucks impounded vehicles that violated rules that restrict cars to alternate days based on whether license plates end in odd or even numbers.

Authorities forecast that the sweeping traffic restrictions, along with a major expansion of the capital's subway system that began over the weekend and measures to shut down polluting factories, would help clear smog over Beijing in time for the Games. Some foreign experts voiced doubts, saying air pollution is too intense to clear so easily.

It marked the second time in less than a year that Beijing restricted traffic. In a four-day test last August, pollution experts noted a slight improvement in air quality.

According to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, 16 of the world's 20 most-polluted cities are in China, making the environment a priority in the government's bid to pull off the perfect Games. Beijing has gone on a spending spree, relocating factories, seeding clouds, retiring old vehicles, planting millions of trees and halting building construction amid concerns that athletes and visitors could suffer breathing problems.

Kenneth Rahn, a retired atmospheric chemist at the University of Rhode Island who has analyzed air pollution data from Beijing over the past five years, said weather factors, such as winds bringing clean air from the Mongolian steppe, may make more of a difference to air quality during the Olympics than the traffic restrictions.

“Last summer's experiment gave undetectable reductions in pollutants overall,” Rahn said in an e-mail, adding that the traffic reduction might be ineffective but harmless to attempt.

“On the philosophy that every little bit helps, this effort is probably worth doing,” he said.

Beijing residents have gone car-crazy this decade. About 1,200 new vehicles pile onto the city's streets each day, slowing transit on the five concentric ring roads around the capital to a stop-and-start crawl at peak hours.

A $3.2 billion expansion of the city's subway system, inaugurated over the weekend, lengthened its routes to 125 miles, a 40 percent jump. One of the three new lines carries passengers from the airport to a downtown hub in a brisk 20 minutes.

Beijing has taken other major steps to reduce pollution in recent years, including ordering smelters, brick kilns, cement, petrochemical and steel plants to cut emissions or move from the city entirely. Coal-fired power plants also have installed cleaner technology.

The measures have utterly reversed the course once set by Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China in 1949, who sought to end Beijing's vaunted role as an imperial city and turn it into a workers' haven of factories, steel mills and smokestacks. The Los Angeles Times contributed.