Confusion in Tianjin after government departments disagree over driving restrictions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 11:19am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:56pm

When Tianjin authorities on Sunday night imposed driving restrictions for the next day, the last-minute measures against smog led to a public rebuttal by the city’s traffic department and sparked confusion among commuters.

Around 7.30pm on Sunday, the city’s environmental protection bureau announced the travel restrictions in a Weibo post. It said that, starting Monday, vehicles whose licence plates ended with a 3 or an 8 would not be allowed on the streets as a contingency plan against severe air pollution.

But four hours later, the city's traffic radio account wrote in a Sina Weibo post: “According to the traffic department’s most recent information, driving restrictions are not being imposed at the moment.” The message came at 11.22pm, little more than half an hour before the restrictions were supposed to go into effect.

Comments by internet users on the Weibo post were incredulous and in some cases laced with swear words. “Why so suddenly?” one person asked. “Did it just occur to you?”

The Tianjin Daily, a local Communist Party publication, said in a Weibo post on Monday that the environmental department was the "source of this chaos". 

According to smog emergency measures put in place by the city in October, such restrictions would be imposed if the city faced three consecutive days of severe air pollution. Other measures include a ban on barbecues and the burning of waste.

Air pollution reached hazardous levels on Monday in the port city. Concentration of PM2.5 and PM10 particles in the air were above 500 at 10am in the morning, according to the city’s measurements.

A local resident surnamed Lin said he did not know of any traffic restrictions imposed on Monday. “That would be too sudden and only cause chaos,” he said.

Tianjin had some 2.36 million registered vehicles last year. The number of vehicles almost doubled in the previous decade, according to municipal statistics.

City authorities have already announced measures to curb pollution, emulating Beijing’s model, earlier this month. As part of these plans, the city said it would impose permanent driving restrictions starting in March next year.

The city’s traffic authorities also said motorists could in the future only obtain vehicle number plates by participating in an auction or a lottery. About 65 per cent of the people taking part in an online poll said they did not support the restrictions.

The restrictions announced for next year would, however, still be insufficient to help with worsening air pollution, Lin said.

"If they don't make public transport - the subway and buses - more attractive, nothing will change." 

The city's external affairs and environmental department referred questions to the transport department, which could not be reached for comment.