CHINA / Regional

Beijing planning traffic contingencies for Olympics
Updated: 2006-05-19 11:48

Beijing is drafting contingency plans to alleviate the city's smothering traffic and smog during the 2008 Olympics.

Traffic congestion on Beijing's third ring road is shown in this October 22, 2003 file photo. Beijing is planning traffic contingencies during the coming 2008 Olympic Games. [newsphoto]

Jiang Xiaoyu, a vice-president of the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, said Thursday that partial traffic bans and special lanes for Olympic traffic on some roadways are already being planned. He said other measures are under consideration.

Jiang did not elaborate, but committee officials have privately said possible contingencies include an extended holiday for the Chinese capital's huge government work force and limiting city residents to driving their cars every other day.

"We're striving to achieve better air quality by the 2008 Games to welcome the athletes and the Olympic family," Jiang told a news conference at the end of a three-day inspection visit by the International Olympic Committee.

In contrast to the smooth construction of Olympic venues, traffic and pollution have emerged as key problems for Beijing as it prepares for the Games two years from now. With soaring car ownership and other trickle-down effects of economic growth, the city is regularly choked in brown haze and jammed traffic, lengthening commutes and frustrating citizens and officials.

The IOC inspectors' visit occurred as a sandstorm raked the city in yellow grit, fouling the air. For much of Tuesday and Wednesday, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau recorded severely polluted air in the capital.

City and Beijing Olympic officials insist the situation is improving. Jiang said nearly two out of three days last year had air quality ranked as good or better. He ticked off a list of measures being taken to improve traffic, from adding more highways to lengthening the subway system.

In reviewing Beijing's progress toward the Olympics, the IOC delegation expressed confidence in the city, said it was meeting its targets and praised the construction of the sports venues, especially a futuristic swimming centre and a national stadium, known as the Bird's Nest because of its lattice steel exterior.

"You can't think of any other word than 'stunning,'" said Hein Verbruggen, the head of the IOC's coordination committee.

Verbruggen also acknowledged the challenge that traffic and pollution pose for the city. Beijingers purchased about 1,000 new cars a day last year, giving the city 2.6 million vehicles, half of them private.

"Staggering figures like that give an idea of the problems they have to solve," Verbruggen said at the news conference. Afterward he said, "It's an uphill battle for them."  

Beijing dropped from fourth to 15th place in a Chinese survey of livable cities this year, in part because of pollution and traffic. The city has 7,000 building sites, many of them being rushed to completion ahead of the Olympics. A relay marathon went ahead last month despite hazardous smog.

Beijing's mayor regularly cites air pollution, traffic and water shortages as among his gravest problems.

"You're lucky the air quality is good during your visit," Mayor Wang Qishan told visiting Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley on Monday. When Daley handed Wang a photograph of the Chicago skyline with Lake Michigan in the foreground, Wang said, wistfully: "Look, the sky is blue, the water clean."

The IOC and Beijing organizers have said they are counting on the traditional hospitality of ordinary Chinese and their enthusiasm for the Olympics to make the Games a success. But the Olympic contingency plans are testing the tolerance of ordinary Chinese, who have grown more free and assertive after two decades of economic reforms.

Privately, Beijing Olympic organizers have said that city residents, if given vacations during the Games, might swarm the venues, rather than leave the city on holiday. Excessive security that keeps Chinese away could also spark negative media reports and spoil the atmosphere.

"The temporary administrative measures we will take will be in line with international practices," said Jiang.


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