Man vs. Man and Nature at the Beijing Olympics, Round Two

Back in May I blogged about the Chinese government’s plans to keep it from raining during the Olympics, as well as their pollution reduction efforts.

The latest phase of the pollution fight is now kicking in: banning half the cars from the roads each day based on whether the license plate number ends in an even or odd number.

For the sake of the athletes, let’s hope the scheme works better in Beijing than does a similar plan in place in Mexico City. We recently published a piece in the Journal of Political Economy written by Michigan economist Lucas Davis. He looks at the pollution impact of only allowing each car to drive six days a week in Mexico City based on the license plate number.

He finds that, if anything, the rule makes pollution worse. Why? Most likely because people keep junky old cars around longer after they buy a new car, and they use the high-polluting junker on days when their Prius is prohibited from driving (although I am guessing there are not many Priuses in Mexico City). The rules also led more people to take taxis, which at that time were Volkswagen Beetles and apparently were among the worst offenders when it came to emissions.

The Beijing plan might work better. First, it takes time for people to find ways around the constraints imposed by the rule. It is quite possible it will work better in the short run than in the long run, when people have had a chance to adjust like they have in Mexico City. Second, banning half the cars might work better than banning one-seventh of the cars.

If all else fails, the Chinese government presumably is in charge of the pollution monitors in Beijing. Perhaps it is enough that the athletes (or the world) think the air is clean even if it isn’t. The official readings are surely much easier to tinker with than the habits of millions of drivers.


What is that about women? Do they count too? Wow.


I second Carol Anne - what's up with the title of this piece? No women live in Beijing? No women drive cars? No women participate in the Olympics? Come on. Say what you mean.

M Todd

How can this be in the land of lead based paint toys, contaminated pharmaceuticals and poisoned pet food.

Maybe China can suspend all tanks from rolling over those calling for democratic reform during the Olympics to reduce pollution.


I attended the 1984 Olympic Games in LA, and predictions there were for a smog-impacted Olympics, with gridlocked freeways, etc.

But what happened was that LA folks got out of town. It seemed that everyone who could take vacation and close up shop did so. Traffic was very, very light. Without traffic and some major industry, the air was clear enough to see the mountains all around the basin.

I went to Disneyland for the first time the first week of the Olympics, and the place was deserted except for some Olympic athletes.

Can Beijing succeed the way a free society did for LA?

Carol Anne

"Man vs. Man and Nature at the Beijing Olympics, Round Two"

Are there no women participating in the 2008 Olympics?


they should have a biking incentive, with random bikers getting free tix to the cycling events


Or, the prospect of not being able to drive pressured people to do more driving than they otherwise would. More average driving also mean more congestion and worse car performance.


here in manila we have a stupid and similar rule which bans car ending in 1 and 2 on mondays, 3 and 4 on wednesdays... and so on. but traffice isnt reduced!


Actually, the Chinese government has manipulated the pollution index by relocating some of the air quality sensors to areas with clear air:


I seriously doubt that the Chinese government would misreport the level of pollution to hide the truth from outsiders. Only a dishonest government with a record of civil rights violations would do that. And we all know the IOC doesn't hold Olympic Games at nations like that.


At least certain types of pollution are easy to measure by a device no larger than a paperback. A BBC reporter is doing just that and finds - surprise, surprise - a decrease in pollution ( Not even Chinese government can prevent this kind of independent monitoring.


I wonder how effective the enforcement of restrictions has been in places like Mexico City or Sao Paulo, and how that sets expectations for Beijing.

Even if the official readings are tinkered with, isn't it likely everyone else will know better?

Nicholas Weaver

Also, in Mexico, you have a large source of junker, high poluting, low cost cars (the US). I THINK You don't have that in China. Most of the cars are relatively new, so there isn't a huge delta on the pollution-creation from the various cars.


I wonder if the ability to read blogs like this, and check out the strategies used in Mexico will have an impact on how they adjust.


I'm not sure if this will be an effective measure in reducing pollution, but I think many if not most will obey the new restrictions. After all, the China wants to show a positive image to the world. After the olympics, all bets are off. The incentive to reduce pollution won't be as strong as before.

Gilberto Gonçalves

Dear Steven, you´re absolutely right in your analysis. I Live in São Paulo - Brazil - and we have in our city the same scheme: Mondays to Fridays, 20% of the cars are banned of the streets each day. During the first months, it worked well. Now we have more cars circulating than before. And, of course, public transportation hasn´t been developed and it is still insufficient and pollution is worst than it was years ago.


I doubt this plan can work quickly enough to make a difference. Meanwhile the USOC has been working on a special filtration mask that athletes can where. Maybe the sight of that will embarrass the Chinese to actually enforce the environmental laws on their books.


Enforcement is another major factor.

The Mexico City rules are not strictly enforced. Even if you are pulled over by the police for violating the law, you can bribe your way out of it.

So the incentive is to take your chances (pay nothing) or bribe your way out (pay less than fine)

I suspect China is better with enforcement....

Nirmal Vora

You might be interested in studying how the chinese govt has been able to control / stop polluting industries in & around Beijing. It seems they have also stopped shipments of all hazardous cargo. It might be interesting to see the effect of this on global chemical / pharmaceutical / related industries.


I'm currently in Beijing and am witnessing it in person. I have observed near perfect observance of the law. There are a few cases where cars had the wrong license number,but I suspect they were VIP because they were often followed by police vehicles.

Ways around it are of course to own two vehicles or more simply, two license plates. But the ban only lasts until September 20th so I think most people will just wait it out.