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Building a City: Battling Smog with Towers and Bicycles in Beijing

Pioneering transport solutions and innovative urban architecture are improving air quality and creating a buzz in Beijing

Daan Roosegaarde, standing next to his smog-free tower, holds smog particles taken from Beijing’s air. Photo: Studio Roosegaarde

Daan Roosegaarde was standing on the 32nd floor of a Beijing skyscraper when he decided that his next mission would be to solve China’s smog problem. As the Dutch artist looked out across the dark sky, he realized he could barely see anything. He couldn’t even see the other side of the street.

“The issue became really physical for me that day. Our desire for progress has created a terrible side effect,” Roosegaarde says. “I thought about the eight-year-old children who would get lung cancer, how my own life span could be three years shorter living in this city.”

Roosegaarde had been living and working in China for a decade. But as it turns out, that afternoon would change the trajectory of his work forever. Over the next three years, Roosegaarde would design a mini-skyscraper of his own: one that works to improve the quality of Beijing’s air by sucking in smog and pushing out clean air.

The smog-free tower is first charged with a positive current, which causes an electrode to send positive ions into the air and attach to fine dust particles. A “counter” electrode with a negative charge then attracts these positive ions and the particles attached to them. The toxic smog is then removed from the air and stored inside the tower. The ions are able to attach to even the most ultrafine dust particles, creating a much more effective filter than traditional filtration systems.

“The concept is a tower that acts as the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world,” Roosegaarde says. “We finished the one in Beijing two years ago. Now we can prove that the air around the building is between 20 and 70 percent cleaner than the rest of the city, depending on the humidity, rain, and wind.”

Traffic poses a significant problem as China’s megacities continue their sprawl, but the biggest cause of the country’s pollution remains the burning of coal. According to a study by Tsinghua University, around 366,000 premature deaths were caused by air pollution in 2013 alone. For people living near highways, lung damage from breathing toxic air is equivalent to smoking 17 cigarettes per day.

Beijing’s smog has closed schools, prompted government-imposed driving restrictions, and even caused panic among farmers whose crops lack the sunlight needed for reliable harvests. Many city residents wear face masks every day, hoping they’ll act as a physical barrier to the dangerous particles around them — even though most masks in China lack the pollution filters to offer protection. Finding clean indoor air is just as much of a challenge; even double glazing doesn’t protect against toxic particles seeping in through tiny gaps.

In May, Chinese officials announced that the government would spend $360 billion on renewable energy projects to decrease the country’s dependence on coal. China remains the world’s largest consumer of coal, and the country lacks the environmental safeguards that many other nations consider standard. So the question is not only about national government policy and adopting modern energy solutions, but also about what can be done to remove all the smog that’s already in the air.

A dish of smog particles taken from Beijing’s air. Photo: Studio Roosegaarde

Luckily, Roosegaarde has more than one smog-oriented solution up his sleeve. At this summer’s World Economic Forum summit in the Chinese city of Dalian, he took part in a collaborative workshop organized by Tsinghua University. Inspired by this collaborative work, Roosegaarde introduced bicycles fitted with the same innovative smog-sucking technology as his smog-free tower.

Like the tower, these bikes will feature air filters that collect and purify polluted air, then push out cleaner air in the direction of the rider. Roosegaarde has partnered with Ofo, a company often called China’s “Uber for bikes.” This bike-sharing startup currently boasts 6.5 million bikes across more than 150 cities worldwide, as well as upwards of 3 million daily users.

“We have a lot of experience with smog, and they have a lot of experience with modern bicycles, so we’re taking the Ofo bike and designing an add-on where we make our technology work on a smaller scale,” Roosegaarde says.

The first prototype of Roosegaarde’s futuristic bike is scheduled for completion by the end of this year. But could this really be the answer to Beijing’s smog problem? If the rise of sharing-economy platforms in China is any indication, it may well be.

A visualization showing how Roosegaarde’s smog-free bikes will work. Photo: Studio Roosegaarde

From umbrellas to napping pods, the Chinese sharing economy is booming. By 2020, it will account for 10 percent of the country’s GDP, according to China’s Sharing Economy Research Center. Mobile solutions have long been king for people living in China, which makes the adoption of app-based platforms seamless.

“Beijing has dense, slow-moving traffic and underoptimized public transport. [But] it also has pedestrians with smart devices,” says Florian Bohnert, head of global partnerships at Mobike, the world’s largest bicycle-sharing operator, which was founded in Beijing two years ago and is currently valued at $3 billion. “So we saw an opportunity to create a new urban transportation experience.”

Mobike is not alone. Today, there are more than 16 million shared bicycles in China’s cities, placed on the streets by more than 70 startups competing for a piece of the booming market. These branded bikes are fitted with features like GPS tracking and digital locks. This means users can locate the bikes using their smartphones, which removes the need for the familiar docking stations used in many cities’ schemes. As a result, shared bikes truly appear on every street corner — sometimes even to the detriment of pedestrians.

“People want to cycle, but they don’t want the inconvenience of owning, maintaining, and securing a bicycle as part of their daily commute. That’s why our IoT network and GPS technology are important solutions,” Bohnert says. “Mobike users cycled over 2.5 billion kilometers in total during our first year in operation. The reduction in carbon emissions was equal to taking 170,000 cars off the road for one year.”

A row of Mobikes in China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The positive environmental impact of bike sharing has the potential to be huge in China and beyond, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down, despite the crowded landscape of offerings. If those bikes can begin to reverse the harm done by decades of rapid and damaging development in Beijing, the Chinese capital could soon come to lead the world in efficient, sustainable transport. Roosegaarde’s smog-free bikes will likely purify only small amounts of air, but the mobile nature of bicycles and the sheer number of them being used in Chinese cities has the potential to make a huge difference.

Meanwhile, Roosegaarde is gearing up for global implementation: “I’m not a politician; I can’t write laws. But I can design things, so this is what I do,” he says. “We want to make a smog-free package for cities all around the world. Towers, bicycles — and lots of them. There are no shortcuts, but we are putting these ideas on the agenda and making solutions part of people’s lifestyles. That’s very exciting.”

This story is part of the series “Building a City” by Lauren Razavi. Each installment examines the opportunities and challenges of the sharing economy in a different city.

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