This week saw the news of Beijing sounding its first ever ‘red alert’ for air pollution, with levels so high that children are being kept home from schools. The Beijing authorities have turned to quite drastic measures to reduce pollution levels, including only allowing cars with uneven/even number plates to drive in the city on alternate days, and ordering all outside construction sites to halt their work.
Transport emissions are a major source of Beijing’s air pollution woes, with over 5 million cars zipping around the city. While transport is far from the only cause of Beijing smog - the construction dust, factory emissions and coal-burning for heating homes in the winter are all playing their part - there are a number ways to make transport greener and quicker that Beijing, and others battling air pollution, can learn from.
1. Get people back on their feet: Walking is by far the most sustainable way to get around a city. Beijing might not be the most friendly city for walkers, with streets designed first and foremost for cars, but increasing the distance that people walk would be a good way to reduce congestion and pollution. Walk [Your City] is an example of a digital tool that can help promote walking in cities. The company lets people design signs that explain how long it will take to walk between popular destinations. These can be attached to lamp posts or other structures, and also have a QR code which brings up walking directions when scanned with a smartphone.
2. Make cycling easier and faster: Cycling will be the first answer most turn to when thinking about how to reduce our dependency on cars and the pollution they create. However, to get people cycling, cities have to make this attractive, easy and fast. Beijing and others can learn a lot from how cities in Denmark have sought to constantly innovate to improve the cycling experience. Carriages on the railway system in Copenhagen have, for example, been designed with bike racks, so those commuting in from outside Copenhagen can combine public transport with a bike ride to and from the train station on either end. At the same time, cities are covered in parking opportunities for bicycles (a crucial element to the bicycle infrastructure) and special elevated roads for cyclists. Further catering to bicycles, Copenhagen city also introduced its first dedicated cycle bridge, crossing one of the city’s harbour canals. The latest cycle experiment has seen Aarhus, Denmark’s second biggest city, introduce an RFID tag for bicycles that turns traffic lights from red to green when cyclists approach it, to make cycle journeys through the city faster and easier.
3. Make working from home easier: A lot of urban travel is made up of people going to and from work, but do we really need to be in our offices all of the time to do our work most effectively? The last couple of years have seen a lot interesting UK research into the benefits of working from home (some of it helpfully summarised in this article by London Loves Business). For example, British workers want flexible working - but only 6% of job ads offer it, this in spite of the fact that a study from Citrx estimated that If provided with the opportunity to work remotely, 94% of knowledge workers would opt to work from home on average 2 days per working week. This would amount to savings of £3.8 billion on the commuting cost of tickets, petrol etc., whilst simultaneously reducing 533 million hours a year commuting to and from work.
While there aren’t similar figures for Beijing, there can be little doubt that the city, which is increasingly becoming a service economy, could make more of the benefits in a more flexible workforce.
4. Encourage car sharing: Beijing has developed along the lines of the classic US city, where people work in the centre and live in the suburbs. With over 5 million cars on the city's roads, cars make a significant contribution to the city’s air pollution woes. Sharing journeys to work could be one way to make a small dent in the problem. Beijing could combine tried-and-tested techniques like high occupancy vehicle lanes, with innovative platforms which help drivers and those wanting a ride to connect with each other and share journeys. An example of this is Nebengers in Jakarta, which uses Twitter to share 1,000 requests for ride shares each day with its 80,000 followers.
5. Be radical: ban cars in the city centre: While many initiatives will focus on reducing traffic in cities and nudging people to shift from cars to walking, biking or public transport, cities could also take the more drastic step and ban cars in the city all together. Beijing could start by following the lead of many European cities and set up car-free zones, or if the leaders of Beijing are feeling especially radical, they could go one step further and ban cars from the city centre entirely as Oslo plans to do. The Norwegian capital aims to go completely car free by 2019, while also building 60km of extra cycle lanes and boosting investment in the existing bus and tram networks.
None of these methods alone will give Beijing a clean, green transport system that doesn’t aggravate the city’s air pollution problems. Prioritising mixed use development is a must, and further investment and technical innovation are required to improve the efficiency and capacity of the transport system. Yet by adopting the innovations listed above, the city government in Beijing could make an important contribution to creating a city that is both easy and enjoyable to get around, as well as one where the air is a little more breathable.