Beijing works with traffic restrictions

Traffic flowed a little smoother. Busy avenues had fewer cars. By nightfall, even the hazy sky had mostly cleared.

So went the first workday under a government-imposed plan to reduce Beijing's air pollution before the start of next month's Olympics.

Millions of commuters turned to subways, buses and car pools as the strict program sought to take half of Beijing's 3.3 million cars off the road.

In parts of the city, traffic was visibly lighter.

“There were much fewer vehicles on the airport expressway, and I could drive much faster,” said civil servant Lin Kai, shaving with an electric razor while sitting in his parked car.

He said he bought a new bicycle because of the restrictions and would try to pedal to work a few times a week despite the summer heat and the hour-long ride.

The two-month operation that began Sunday bans cars with odd-numbered license plates one day, even-numbered plates the next. The attempt to ensure “blue sky days” by the time 10,500 athletes and 500,000 visitors arrive for the Aug. 8-24 Olympics includes construction cutbacks and factory closures.

Those caught driving on the wrong days will be fined $14. It wasn't known how many tickets were issued.

Sun Weide, spokesman for Beijing's Olympic organizing committee, said the plan should reduce vehicle emissions by 63 percent. The emissions are a major cause of the thick, gray-brown haze that often hides the city's skyline.

Changes in air quality will be monitored by experts from the city's environmental protection bureau, which has 27 survey stations around Beijing and another 18 in Olympic venues, according to the state-run Beijing Times newspaper.

So far, “the air in the city is good, the density of pollutants has fallen,” the report said, citing the bureau. But it will take at least 20 days for results to be conclusive, deputy director Du Shaozhong was cited as saying.

Foreign experts said the plan could still fail because winds might blow pollution from other provinces into Beijing, or a lack of wind – common in August – could allow local pollution to build up.

Monday, drivers with even-numbered plates were forced to find other ways to travel.

Neighborhood Web sites were full of car pool requests. The public-transit system was generally able to handle the increase in riders by adding buses and subway cars.