Friday, May 18, 2007

China's Traffic Problems

One of my least favorite aspects of life in China is dealing with virtually all forms of traffic, whether on bike, in a car, or on foot. To some degree, this is to be expected, given that this is the second most populous city in the most populous nation on earth, but it still gets to me.

Cars making right turns, for example, are a constant source of irritation for me. The US standard of coming to a full, or even rolling stop at a red light is entirely absent - in China, drivers don't even really slow down, and right turns proceed throughout the whole traffic cycle. For a bicyclist, this is extremely dangerous - when you have a green light, and you pedal past a bus sitting at the front of the last straight-going lane only to be nearly run over by a taxi hurtling through it's right turn without even braking, you begin to see the sense in some of the traffic regulations one finds so onerous in the west.

In fact, there seems to be a general disrespect that drivers of cars show towards pedestrians and cyclists. My guess is this is a class thing - you have to be upper-middle class or rich to drive a car in China, and I think they view pedestrians and bikers as plebs who should get the hell out of the way. Drivers on the campus of Beijing Normal, taking streets that are FULL of walkers and bicyclists, honk at anyone in their way, and speed past with inches to spare. That kind of behavior would get you lynched at a US university, where it's pedestrians are generally the ones showing no respect.

Of course, I can understand their frustration - while jaywalking seems to be a universal in big cities, it's taken to another level in China. People also seem to prefer walking in the bike lanes to walking on the sidewalks. Sure, there are lots of narrow sidewalks, or even streets without them, but you often see an empty sidewalk, and a whole stream of pedestrians in the bike lane.

The strangest thing to me is that people often step into the bike lane, or even into the road with their back towards traffic! No looking both ways, not even the right way, just plunging right in with the expectation that drivers and bikers will avoid them. And for the most part they do. Aside from a few close calls, a brush or two, and one not-even-fender-bending bike collision, we haven't been involved in or seen any big accidents.

I've seen one or two car collisions (after the fact), one of which looked pretty serious, but I have to say I'm really surprised at how seldom they occur.

of course, people here generally don't where seatbelts (even educated types), so when they do happen, the results are disastrous. I've heard that over 300,000 people a year die on the roads in China. When I go out tonight, I'll drink to my not becoming one of them while I'm here.

No comments: