Prayers for strong winds look set to become a major component of Beijing's Olympic preparations after a traffic-reduction trial failed to shift the smog that hangs over the city.
More than a million cars were taken off the roads for the four-day test period, but there was no improvement in the air quality, according to city officials.
As of Sunday the air quality ranking had not budged from level two on China's five-tier scale, in which level one represents clear unpolluted skies. The pollution rose thousands of meters above the city on Sunday -- a distinct gray layer could be seen from flights descending in Beijing, hovering over fluffy white clouds.
On Monday the skies above Beijing were the same dirty grey shade as when the test started on Friday.
Beijing had an air pollution index of between 93 and 95 during the test days, the city's environmental protection bureau said on its Web site. By yesterday morning, the index had climbed to between 90 and 120.
Nonetheless, the city's Olympic organizers declared the test a success. Air quality was "fairly good" during the four-day trial, the official Xinhua news agency said, although the state-run Beijing Daily gushed that traffic control test ``brought Beijing four days of precious blue skies.''
Because there was no wind, officials said, pollution would have grown thicker without the special restrictions.
"Level two is a good enough standard for athletic competition," said Yu Xianoxuan (余小萱), the environmental director of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee. "If we had not had the traffic controls we could not have maintained this level because the temperature and humidity were very high. So we can see the restrictions worked."
Whether this will reassure the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is another matter. Earlier this month IOC president Jacques Rogge warned that events might be postponed if pollution levels threatened the performance of athletes. To minimize that risk and the damage to the city's international reputation, Beijing plans to ban more than a third of the city's 3 million cars for the two-week period of the games.
During the four-day trial cars with odd- and even-numbered plates were supposed to stay off the roads on alternate days. Emergency vehicles, taxis, buses and other public-service vehicles were exempt. Although the measures did not make much of an impact on the environment, the traffic that usually jams the city was noticeably better in many areas.
In related news, Beijing is nearly full. The city's population has surged to within a few hundred thousand of the ceiling of 18 million set by the city government last year, Xinhua reported yesterday.
The population rise is straining the city's natural resources and environment, with Beijing long having passed the food self-sufficiency mark of 14 million, the report said.
It said the population included 12.04 million permanent residents holding Beijing household registration certificates, along with 5.1 million migrants, citing figures released by the Public Security Ministry at a workshop on Monday.