Observations on the Midway Point of Beijing’s First-Ever Red Alert

We’re at the midpoint of Beijing’s first-ever red alert over bad air, and things are going as swimmingly as they could be given that we’re dealing with some of the ugliest air on the planet … though not the ugliest.

Thankfully – or perhaps tragically – there are 55 other cities worldwide that have it worse than us on average, and even one that has it worse than us right now: a dubious distinction that belongs to New Delhi.

Thursday at noon the odds/events car restrictions will be lifted, and Friday the kids of the city can go back to school, so we’re free to resume normal life … for the time being.

As I sit nestled between the throaty growl of the full-blast setting of my IQ Air and the shrill whirl of my DIY air cannon, my trusty Laser Egg by my side, I deliver to you, my dear readers, some random observations on the first 36 hours of lockdown at Ground Zero:

Bad Air Awareness Is at an All-Time High
As a subway commuter and frequent pedestrian in Beijing, I have an obsessive-compulsive habit of counting how many people I see wearing masks. I typically look at the first 100 people that I walk by; on bad air days the number of mask-wearers usually hovers around 20.

Today, for the first time since mask-wearing was in vogue during the SARS epidemic of late 2003/early 2004, my count of mask-wearers approached 50 percent – 2.5 times more than usual.

Of course that still means than more than half of the city’s commuters took no heed whatsoever and faced the red alert unprotected.

Public Employees Need to Get the Message
Sadly the people that need protection the most – those that work in the subway system, on the streets, or outdoors – were all but unprotected. I did not see a single mask on the dozens of security guards, streetside food vendors, or bus and taxi drivers I passed on my commute.

The Forecasts Have Been Right
There was some doubt about whether it was possible to forecast pollution three days in advance, but the weathermen have been right on the money so far: the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s official average for Tuesday was 295, and while Wednesday’s official figures are not yet out, the sites I’ve been montoring have indicating the AQI has been hovering in the 300s all day.

The three forecasting sites we follow all show the air clearing on Thursday: aqcast.com has the air clearing by early Thursday morning, airvisual.com has it by late morning, and aqicn.org has it clear by early afternoon.

Should it clear Thursday, the forecast of three consecutive days of AQI 200 would be technically incorrect – as the red alert was sounded Monday night, meaning the next three days (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday) should be bad. As it stands now, Thursday could be quite good (relatively speaking).

However, we might give the powers that be a mulligan this time around because Monday was in fact over 200 (thus we have a three-day stretch already confirmed), and this red alert was more of an upgrade to an orange alert that had been issued Sunday.

What Happens Next?
However, despite Thursday’s forecasted clearing, we’re due for another bout of bad air this weekend: If aqicn.org’s pollution forecasting is to be believed, the air will likely once again be over AQI 200 for three consecutive days from December 12 through December 14 (Saturday through Monday). Will another red alert be declared? We’ll find out soon enough.

Drivers Fell in Line
Adherence to the odds-events rule was near universal in Beijing. From personal observations on Tuesday (even day) and Wednesday (odd day), there were almost no cars violating the protocol. That’s indicative of two things: the universal efficiency of communications (with a mere 12 hours’ notice, the drivers of an entire city of 20 million knew exactly what to do); and the power of rules backed by actual enforcement (drivers caught violating the odds/evens rule by any of the city’s ubiquitous traffic cameras face hefty fines).

A Generation of Beijing Children Can Now Look Forward to Smog Days
Most schools around Beijing – even those with sophisticated air filtration systems – shut down on order of the education ministry for Tuesday through Thursday. This naturally caused shouts of joy from students citywide, many who have have never seen school called due to inclement weather.

As Beijing-based comedian Jesse Appell perhaps best put it, “Kids get off from school to have smogball fights and build smogmen with coal for eyes, go smogbogganing down hills on smogtubes, and make smog angels in the dust.”

Laser Eggs Out of Stock
Those attempting to procure a Laser Egg were shocked to find that the product is completely out of stock, despite a sudden 25 percent price hike December 1. Air filter retailers and mask companies reported similar situations (that is, if they had time between an avalanche of orders to answer our queries at all).

Uber and Taxis Were Easy to Find
I took two trips via Uber over the past two days and snagging a ride was typical, with no additional waiting times (though late night Tuesday the surge pricing was twice the norm). Drivers said business was brisk, particularly during rush hours.

The Subway Wasn’t Overwhelmed
Surprisingly the morning commute by subway was no more crowded than usual despite the restrictions on driving; in fact the Shuangjing station, normally one of the more crowded stations, did not have its typical waiting line to get into the station that is usually present on weekday mornings.

The Red Alert Didn’t Make the Air Good
Despite half the city’s cars being grounded, factories ground to a halt and a number of other measures, the air still sucked … though it sucked significantly less than last week’s readings that went off the charts. The glass-half-full look at this means that with an enormous effort, some level of pollutants were contained; however, the glass-half-empty folks will be quick to note that the air was still terrible.

Regardless, even if all this red alert has done was to raise the awareness of the effects of bad air in the city, that’s still a significant accomplishment and another step on the long journey of trying to get this monster under control.

Photo: Michael Wester

This post originally appeared on thebeijinger.com

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