Chapter 8 – Traffic: Going With the Flow

I was sitting in the backseat of the taxi as we rode to the Chengdu Airport. I leaned into the center of the backseat and looked between the two front seats down the “nose” of the cab at the white line that divided the two lanes going our direction.

At first the way the “nose” stuck to the white line seemed nicely precise. But wait. Weren’t there two lanes going our direction, and wasn’t there one car to our right and another to our left? The math didn’t work. We drove this way for quite awhile, “nose” to white line, and then the driver moved all the way to the right, later crossing all the way back to the left.

This is driving, China-style.

And here’s my theory:

Perhaps their Daoist heritage causes the Chinese to value naturalness and flow: Yin merges into and becomes yang, which merges into and becomes yin. That sort of thing.

There is nothing natural about traffic lights and lines marking lanes. If a Chinese taxicab driver, motorist or motorcyclist sees a space where his vehicle might fit, he goes, he flows. Never mind that there’s a red light or a line dividing the roadway into two and not three lanes.

I may be misreading Daoism and the Chinese character, if there is such a thing, but, hey, it’s just a theory.

What’s a fact is the messiness of Chinese traffic.

Martin says that if you ask Chinese ex-pats what they like about living outside China, a common answer is “the traffic isn’t as bad.”

Driving ain’t easy…
China’s burgeoning prosperity has brought a dramatic increase in the number of motor vehicles, and the road system hasn’t been able to keep up—not that road systems ever really do.

But appreciation for “rules of the road” hasn’t kept up, either.”Go with the flow” doesn’t work well when there are large numbers of pedestrians, bicycles, carts, scooters, motorcycles, cars, buses and trucks jockeying for position.

Traffic accidents are rife; I saw two in two weeks—fortunately, both fender-benders. Outside a tourist area in Chengdu, I walked past a large wall display on traffic safety, doubtless erected by government authorities. I couldn’t read any of it, but the intent was clear from the large, full-color photographs of crumpled bicycles lying in front of bus wheels and smashed cars. There were even pictures of people sprawled on the pavement, one in a pool of blood. (The blood looked fake; I hope it was.)

Within a few days of being in China, it was clear to me that I would never, ever be able to drive a car there. I lack the spatial relations ability, and I lack the nerve. Riding in the back seats of taxis, I’d be aware of a vehicle to the right, and then the cabbie would move right and the vehicle would be gone, and I would wonder where it was. This was particularly worrisome when the vehicle was a motorcycle or scooter.

…and walking’s not much easier
Being a pedestrian has its challenges, too. I had read in the Herzbergs’ “China Survival Guide” and in many online articles as well, that as a pedestrian, you shouldn’t assume that it’s safe to stride out into the street just because you have a green light or even a walk signal. The Herzbergs advised attaching yourself to a group of Chinese pedestrians, who presumably have traffic skills you don’t have, before attempting to cross a street. So I always sought to be part of a herd. A herd of pedestrians was best, but it seemed fine, too, to be amidst a fleet of scooter-riders or cyclists. I should add that there were crossing guards at some of the major intersections in both Beijing and Chengdu, although they didn’t appear to have much power, and in some places in both cities, there were elaborate pedestrian overpasses and underpasses, which I was always happy to use.

On smaller, neighborhood streets, there were no lights. Nor did there seem to be much compunction about crossing only at corners. And some of the time you had to walk in the street because the sidewalk was otherwise occupied: A produce stall might be getting a delivery from a bicycle cart, and the sidewalk might be covered with bundles of vegetables. Or maybe a restaurant had set out a few tables, and people would be eating or knitting or playing cards. Or perhaps someone from the motorcycle shop was working on a motorcycle—and why haul it up the steps into the shop? Or the sweet potato vendor had parked his roaster or the raisin vendor had pulled his bicycle-driven flatbed display cart onto the sidewalk. There was always something.

And by the end of my stay in China, I could jaywalk with the best of them.

Table of Contents |  Chapter 9

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