How Beijing Works

Beijing Olympics

A typical day of Beijing traffic
A typical day of Beijing traffic
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing, like any city vying for an Olympic nomination, had to prove itself. The city won its bid by promising to stage a Green Olympics. Although eco-consciousness is increasingly de rigueur for major sporting events, the concept was relatively new in 2001. The first Olympic-scale international sporting event to go green happened five years later with the 2006 World Cup. Committee members saw that if Beijing, with air pollution worse than that of Los Angeles, could successfully go green, the city itself might draw as much hype as the games staged there.

Beijing quickly shut down its nastiest factories to reduce air pollution. Coal-fired power plants installed wet scrubbers, a basic system that removes sulfur dioxide from flue gas. The city even persuaded its worst polluter, a steel company, to move its factories outside of town.

But Beijing's biggest pollution problem is its high concentration of particulates -- particles of dust and fossil fuels like coal suspended in the air. Because particulates aggravate the respiratory system, athletes could have difficulty competing in Beijing's bad air. And unfortunately, the games are taking place in August, which has the year's highest rates of particulate matter. In August, a seasonal shift in the wind blows the grimy air of surrounding industrialized areas into Beijing and traps it between the city's mountains. The United States Olympic Committee's Performance Services Division has even recommended that its athletes wear activated-charcoal face masks during competition and off the field [source: Wired].

Beijing's huge and growing fleet of cars also adds to the city's air pollution -- there are more than 3 million cars on its roads [source: BBC]. The city does, however, have a subway system that will play an important role shuttling Olympic spectators to various venues. But as an everyday transit option, the subway is too limited for a city of Beijing's size. Beijing launched a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in 2005 to help support the subway. BRT lines run on exclusive lanes and are able to speed by traffic.To lower air pollution and reduce traffic, Beijing may also limit driving during the Olympics. In August 2007, the city ran a four-day trial program that allowed cars to drive only on alternate days based on license plate numbers. Because an increase in humidity coincided with the test, the results were unimpressive. Particulate mater actually rose nearly 10 percent despite the reduction in car emissions [source: Washington Post].

The busy Beijing subway will help Olympic visitors get around town. The busy Beijing subway will help Olympic visitors get around town.
The busy Beijing subway will help Olympic visitors get around town.
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

As the games near, Beijing assures skeptics that several last-minute tricks will improve air quality. The Beijing Meteorological Bureau, which has already experimented with ­cloud seeding to control the weather and prevent rain, guarantees that it can also create refreshing rain showers to help clear the air. The city government might also shut down factories a couple of weeks before the Olympics and force workers to take vacations.

Next, we'll learn about Beijing's newest avant-garde buildings.