The causes and effects of air pollution comprise a complicated chemical recipe that is all too easily reduced to superficial observation (the color of the sky) or an abstract statistical reading from static instruments. In reality, the total experience of a city’s air quality is a combination of highly localized as well as more regional effects that shift in intensity as one moves through an urban landscape.

In the months leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing’s poor air quality was a major source of concern as the host city struggled to fulfill its commitment to provide the best possible environment for athletes and visitors. With air that is typically two to three times dirtier than that of most Western cities, Beijing was under tremendous pressure to clear up its smoggy skies before coming under global scrutiny. Despite claims made by Chinese authorities that fog (not smog) was responsible for the low levels of visibility around the city, a the government acknowledged the problem by putting into place a series of initiatives to dramatically curb pollution and visibly improve Beijing’s air quality. These include the removal of half of the city’s 3.3 million cars from the road on alternate days; a temporary ban on 300,000 heavily polluting trucks; the phasing out of older buses and taxis in favor of newer models that use compressed natural gas; higher emissions standards for new cars; the temporary shuttering of dozens of steel, chemical, and cement factories and power plants; doubling the number of subway lines; the pause in all construction activities throughout the city more than two weeks ahead of the games; and the addition of urban parks, or “greenbelts” throughout the city.

Beijing Air Tracks is a project intended to combine air sensing with spatial dynamics to accurately assess the air quality of Olympic host city. In collaboration with the Associated Press, SIDL assigned journalists with handheld aerosol monitoring devices and GPS units which tracked both the air quality (particulate matter and CO2) and the journalists’ geographic location as they moved throughout the city in the course of their daily reporting. With unrivaled access to the Olympic venues, journalists gathered a month’s worth of data which was then assessed as a time series in comparison to average measurements in New York City and London. The results show the image of a city reacting to positive localized change while struggling with larger patterns of regional pollution, thus reflecting the woeful irrelevance of administrative boundaries to environmental problems.

August 2008
Contact: Sarah Williams
Research Associates: Minna Niova, Robert Viola, Cressica Brazier
Associated Websites: Sensing Air Quality at the Olympics, NYTimes - Reducing Pollutants in Beijing