Alternate no-driving day policy to be implemented in Seoul during Olympics

Venues for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in a photo taken on Dec 28, 2017.
Venues for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in a photo taken on Dec 28, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Amid worsening air quality, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced a mandatory "alternate no-driving day" programme on days of high particulate matter levels, during which half of vehicles in the city would be banned from using the roads.

Efforts are underway with the Ministry of Environment to revise the implementation of the Clean Air Conservation Act to allow the city to implement an alternate no-driving day programme.

"It is the most fundamental right of people to breathe clean air," Seoul's Mayor Park Won Soon told reporters during a Sunday (Jan 21) press briefing at Seoul City Hall, adding that the city would step up efforts to strengthen emergency measures, as well as long-term anti-pollution policies, to fight dust.

"In the past decade, Seoul carried out policies including replacing local diesel buses with (natural gas vehicles), limiting the use of aged diesel vehicles and providing emission reduction devices to mitigate air pollution and protect lives and safety of citizens, but we need separate emergency measures amid worsening air quality," Mr Park said.

He said the city would activate the mandatory alternate no-driving policy, if approved, during the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games slated for next month (February) hosted by Gangwon Province, some 200km east of Seoul, on days when fine dust levels are high.

"PyeongChang has good air quality, but the majority of Olympic athletes, officials and tourists are expected to travel to Seoul as well, making it virtually a second host city," Mr Park added.

The announcement came after the city waived public transportation fees during peak commute hours three times last week as part of emergency measures that go into effect in Seoul when the daily average density of ultrafine dust remains above 50 micrograms per cubic meter in the metropolitan areas for two consecutive days.

Seoul set aside a budget of 24.9 billion won (S$30.7 million) to fund the free public transportation programme, which critics say will have only temporary effects at best as over half of fine dust particles in the country came from China as of 2016, according to the government data.

The ultrafine particulate matter, dust particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are classified as harmful by the World Health Organisation, causing a wide range of respiratory illnesses.

Mr Park's announcement came just as Gyeonggi Province Governor Nam Kyung Pil renewed his criticism of Seoul city's policies.

In a message posted on his Facebook page on Sunday, Mr Nam called on the national government to draw up measures to improve air quality, and accused Seoul City of "wasting of tax money" with its recent measures.

"Fine dust is becoming a national disaster," Mr Nam wrote, adding that Seoul city cannot deal with the issue by itself. "The matter of fine dust must be dealt with at a national level, and local governments must cooperate with (national) government policies."

Mr Nam went onto call on President Moon Jae In to establish a presidential organisation to deal with the matter, and to include the issue in South Korea-China summit diplomacy.

"Seoul city government's free public transport (programme) wastes 5 billion won taxes a day. (Park) should not blame Incheon and Gyeonggi governments while wasting taxes," Mr Nam wrote, referring to Seoul's policy of providing free public transportation on days with high fine particulate matter levels.