Traffic Travails

October 2, 2006

Beijing TrafficTonight the city is alive! It is a beautiful night. Beijing’s famed pollution has been in check all week, despite the surge of holiday traffic as crowds stream in to Beijing. The streets are thick with people out to celebrate the start of Golden Week, the week long holiday period from National Day, a sort of Chinese “Fourth of July”, to the “August Moon” holiday, a sort of Chinese Thanksgiving. The pesky lunar calendar means that August Moon is almost always in September or October, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the festivities. This week is reported to be the busiest domestic travel and tourism week in China. The Chinese government estimates that 330 million people (10% more than the entire population of the United States) will travel in China this week, so I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise that we couldn’t get train tickets from Beijing to Xian. The fact that it also it coincides with Yom Kippur is especially convenient for my Jewish friends here in Beijing.

With the city crowded from the holidays, the Chinese perspective on transportation is visible in sharp relief. Whether you are on foot, on a bike, or in a car, the basic Chinese mode of operation is “I know where I am going, now get the hell out of my way”. As a pedestrian you’d think you’d mainly have to worry about bikes and cars, and while it is true that they will hit you without even thinking about it, you have to watch out for your fellow pedestrians too. They will nudge, shove, elbow, trample and generally do anything short of a full blown tackle to get where they are headed, unless of course you are trying to exit the subway, in which case they will stand their ground as unyieldingly as 4000 lbs hand-carved stone lions.

Bike carrying a 30 foot metal frame
Of course, if a pedestrian rams you without warning (as they most certainly will), it is unlikely to kill you. Nevertheless, one Beijing resident we met has advocated for the pedestrian bell, but it has not caught on the way it has with bikes. All bikes here have bells. These bells serve to deliver a message in line with the Chinese transportation ethos, sort of a “I am going faster than you, I am not going to stop, so get the hell out of my way.” Bikes and pedicabs ring their bells not once to alert you, but constantly until you have given them the clearance they seek. Occasionally the riders will also shout at you to move. While there are bike lanes, the bikes seem to feel free to go anywhere and demand that you move. Added fun is provided by bikers who seem to haul all manner of things with them on their bicycles, say for example a 30 foot metal frame for some unknown purpose, or enough trash to start a recycling center.

Of course in the last decade the number of bikes has decreased dramatically as the number of cars has increased. The same hyper-aggressive bike riders now have cars at their disposal. As most Chinese are relatively new to driving they are, frankly, quite bad at it. They make Mario Andretti look downright timid. They are either unaware of any driving regulations or unwilling to follow them, and they act on the simple assumption that if they honk any obstacle worth avoiding it will move itself. It is no wonder that China has fully twice the fatality rate from cars as the US.

Trash bikeDrivers genuinely act as if they can pretty much drive anywhere (including the on the sidewalk) and honk their horn to clear the way. Overloaded trucks and terrible traffic up the ante in a car too. I exaggerate not all when I say that on our ride to the Great Wall, 75 miles outside of Beijing, I was pretty sure somebody would get hit. Our driver would honk furiously at anything in the road that was not going as fast as he wanted, be it farmer, truck, tractor, animal or another driver. If they did not immediately move he would power forward to pass in the oncoming traffic lane, leaning on the horn all the way to “encourage” oncoming traffic to give him as wide a berth as the road allowed. It is not, however, just long distance driving where drivers have no respect for the road.Overloaded truck

Tonight on Wangfujian Avenue, a chic and popular shopping district, people are out and about for the holidays. The crosswalks are teeming with citizens that know better than to jaywalk, since it can be fatal. The sad truth is that you aren’t really much better off in a crosswalk. Perhaps you think I am exaggerating, that it can’t really be that bad…

Here is a 30 second video clip of a Beijing crosswalk. I am standing at on end of the crosswalk looking straight across the street to the side I have come from. All cars and buses seen in the clip are running red lights. When the clip begins, the green “walk” sign is already displayed (about 2/3 of the way up the screen to the right of center). A car is already in the crosswalk pushing its way through. Listen for the horns and watch the couple at 13 seconds wait for one bus to pass, and then hurry across to avoid a second one. Both buses and cars plow right through the crosswalk with scores of people there and nobody is fazed in the least.

1 Comment »

  1. Crossing the street as a pedestrian in China struck me as a disturbingly real-life version of Frogger.

    And riding in a taxi was… surreal. I still have memories of circumventing congested traffic by swerving across *several* lanes of oncoming traffic for a hundred feet or so, and wondering if we’d make it out of the way before getting nailed by one of several oncoming trucks and busses.

    Comment by Mike E. — October 7, 2006 @ 11:59 pm

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