It was a frightfully exciting ride on the bus this morning. Only two-minutes into my journey there was an almighty screech, a swerve and a muffled, somewhat perplexed, murmur from the passengers. The bus abruptly pulled over and we stood looking, eyes agape, at each other for what seemed like a minute but was in fact about 10 seconds. Only when the conductor grabbed her money bag and headed out the door did we follow suit.
Alighting the 361 I realised we’d blown a tire. Now normally in my book all flat tires are treated equal, they happen – so what? But as I joined the throng on my sudden ‘walk-to-work’ this turn of events got me thinking.
On July 20 I and a large proportion of the world’s population held our collective breaths as Beijing began its gargantuan task of taking at least half the city’s three million cars off the road each day. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t think it would work and in the first few days my hobby was to catch any drivers skirting the law, driving their odd-plate car on even days and vice versa.
There were a few who flouted the rule, some even bought second (alternate) cars to steer clear of public ‘amenities’ But overall the capital’s alternate car days initiative has been a relatively straight-forward exercise – at least by my observations as a staunch supporter of public transport.
Sure, this forced restriction of car use and the shutting down of factory emissions is in accordance with the Beijing Olympics’ mantra but this heavy hand is exactly what is required when it comes to pushing the issue of pollution, air quality and global warming.
Just days ago, Beijing’s Meteorological Administration released figures that show Beijing’s air quality at Grade II, the best it’s been in more than a decade, this quality is expected to increase to Grade I over the coming days. There is definitely a change in the air here and we’re all happier for it. The absence of half the cars (plus or minus a few hundred) on our streets is making some difference not only in China but also the region.
It worries me then, come September 20, when the Paralympics ends Beijing’s time in the spotlight, that life – meaning three million cars go back on the roads and smoke stacks begin to plume again – will return to normal. It will not take long for the heavy cloak of pollution to cover Beijing again.
In my idealistic but not implausible view, I want China to rise to the challenge and leave things as they are and implement these measures throughout the middle kingdom, a prime example of a country taking responsibility for its actions against nature and the generations to come. Sure there will be some issues with road-user tax (there are already) and an adjustment of certain industry/commercial expectations but this is minor when we think of the long-term and, as seen, short-term benefits.
If Beijing, one of the largest cities in the world can do it, then any city can. This initiative to combat pollution has done more in four weeks than the bumbling leaders of the G8 have done in the last ten years.
Get the cars off the road, ride a bike, walk, take a bus or train – skip if you have to. If not every day then make it every-other-day as it is currently in Beijing. There’s plenty more we can do but this is at least an affirmative step forward, one that has worked here and should remain in place.
If the retention of alternate car days means a few more extra flat tires on buses carrying more commuters than they once did then I’m all for it – let me change the tire. We’ll all be thanked, one day.
The author is a senior editor at China Daily website