Just How Bad Is Beijing Air?

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Chinese officials have announced plans to shut down major roadways, restrict passenger vehicles and stagger business hours — all to improve air quality for Olympic athletes. How are Beijing residents coping with the changes?

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. With two weeks to go until Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, the city is still trying to clean up the often polluted skies. This week, a new traffic ban went into effect there aimed at cutting the number of cars on the road. Jamila Trindle reports.

JAMILA TRINDLE: For the next two months, Beijingers can only drive their cars every other day. If your license plate ends in an odd number, you can only drive on the odd days of the month. Otherwise, you have to leave the car at home and take public transportation, or find someone with an even-numbered plate. Yang Ching (ph) says she found her driving partner, Shau Jing Fu (ph), after he posted an ad in their neighborhood. Yang says it works well. It's her turn today, so she leaves work at 5:30 and drives to meet Shau at a subway stop, but he's late. Now, she has to find a place to park. Her enthusiasm for carpooling starts to wear thin.

Ms. YANG CHING (Resident, Beijing, People's Republic of China): (Through Translator) The drive to work is fine, but getting home can be inconvenient. If I have a date or a meeting or work goes late, it's hard to coordinate.

TRINDLE: The new regulation is designed not only to cut traffic but to curb pollution in time for the Olympics. Vance Wagner (ph) is an engineer who advices the Chinese government on vehicle-emission standards. He says it's impossible to tell how much of the city's pollution comes from cars. But when I spoke to him on Thursday, he said if the Olympics were held this week, even with the new regulation in place, there'd be problems.

Mr. VINCE WAGNER (Vehicle-Emissions Advisor, People's Republic of China): Unfortunately today, for the...

(Break in audio)

TRINDLE: Days at the games, especially the outdoor events like the marathon. Wagner says even if the air meets Beijing's own blue sky standard, athletes might still have concerns.

Mr. WAGNER: The first big question is, are they measuring the right things? And to be honest, I think that's debatable. And I think the second thing you need to consider is whether or not what Beijing considers a blue sky day would be a considered good quality air in other countries.

TRINDLE: Even though standards differ, Wagner says the government is willing to try anything.

Mr. WAGNER: The only thing that I can say for sure is that the Beijing and the Chinese government is going to do everything that they can to make sure that they meet their air-quality targets.

TRINDLE: Even if it means commuters like Yang Ching and her new friend Shau Jing Fu have to bear the burden. Shau finally appears, and as he gets in the car, you can tell, he's not having a good time. I ask him if this new regulation is going to get him after two months. He says it already has.

Mr. SHAU JING FU (Resident, Beijing, People's Republic of China): (Through Translator) No good. It's not convenient. There's too many people on the subway and it's hot. There's no air conditioning on some of the buses. The people that make the decisions aren't riding the subways, so they don't know.

TRINDLE: Shau says maybe in two months, he'll be resigned to it. Yang says she thinks it's worth sacrificing a little for the Olympics. It can count as our contribution, she says. But Shau disagrees. He says, they should have put Olympics somewhere less populated so fewer people would be inconvenienced. Shau and Yang will have plenty of time over the next two months on the way to work and on the way home to debate that issue and others, doing their part to clear the air. For NPR News, I'm Jamila Trindle in Beijing.

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