Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Traffic in China

One of our blog's readers asked about traffic. She asked whether I have read Peter Hessler's book, Country Driving. I have not, but I did read River Town, where he also talks extensively about the driving habits of the Chinese. The horn is still an essential part of driving here and does, as my reader indicates, seem to be hooked, if not literally, to the gear shift.

Your fellow reader asked, "Do they still have those terra cotta police statues along highways?" Not in Changchun. I have not seen any in Beijing, either, which is the last place you would expect them anyway. On the other hand, I heard about somebody in Beijing who is making as much in a week as I make in a month by filming traffic infractions for the authorities and submitting the video footage so that the offenders get nabbed. It reminds me of the old story about the fellow in America who was sent a photograph of his license plate and a ticket so, in turn, he sent the police a photograph of a check. They sent him a photograph of handcuffs.

The big traffic story in China right now is about a driver who stabbed to death a bicyclist whom he hit accidentally with his car. One of China's top forensic psychologists claims that the boy who did this was maybe abused at home--pushed too hard, perhaps, by his Tiger Mom. There is no question that this one psychotic outburst has taken on out-sized importance, but it is largely because of class issues that are underscored by this story.

The rule of law is something that top officials claim to want and the outcome of this sad tale will certainly show if there is a double-standard. Last week, I asked one of my colleagues, "How do you like the new 'rule of law' pedetrian barriers on Tongzhi Jie." It was a bitter, sarcastic question. For my first week, I was terrified of crossing the street when the light was green and tried to stick to the cross-walks and major intersections where pedestrians congregate. Now, though, I have come to enjoy the freedom of crossing when and where I want to. That came to an end last week when the City of Changchun through up two-foot tall fences down the dividing lines of the major thoroughfare in my neighborhood--Tongzhi Jie (or Comrade Street). It is forcing people to the cross-walks and it is only a matter of time before the old men posing as policemen start speaking to those of us (shhh!) who still dart out and hurdle the barriers, impatient for the interminable light to change. (The traffic lights, by the way, count down to zero in green and then count down to zero in red before the cars are given a green light again. That is the one area where the Chinese traffic control seems more advanced than most American urban areas.)

A Chinese person asked me where I found out the rumor that a cab driver who hits a Westerner in a car is likely to back-up and "finish the job" because it is cheaper to pay for a funeral than medical bills. She said that a Chinese person was obviously too loose with her tongue, "That is the only way a lao wai (informal word for foreigner) could know about this." I have not checked this on snopes.com, but I suspect that this is the sort of thing that has happened a couple times and is the stuff of urban legend. I have absolutely no intention of testing the theory, regardless of how cavalier I may sound about crossing the street.

I have heard horror stories about people getting hit and thrown into the air, but have not personally witnessed any pedestrians being hit.  I wrote earlier about a very peasant-like fellow who kicked a crate into the road nonchalantly and when he leaned over to pick it up nearly got decapitated by a very surprised and subsequently very angry taxi driver. The idiot just smiled and laughed in much the same way I chuckled after being nearly hit by lightning in 1996. It was the "I am so lucky to be alive that Somebody must be smiling upon me" kind of laugh. I feel this way to a lesser degree almost every time I make it safely to the other side of a street.

There was a story (worth reading!) not too long ago about a man who was driving two bumper-cars down the road. He did not get a reprimand because there was nothing technically illegal! You see huge trucks--much, much longer than the 56' that we are accustomed to seeing in the US. You see lots of things that would barely qualify as vehicles loaded to the gills with fifty foot lengths of rebar dashing across intersections without so much as a bandana waving from the back. You see cyclists with circus-tent high, wobbly loads of recycled cardboard. There are plenty of cars and even more motorcycles and motorized bike carts that disregard one-way streets and dart up the side. I have yet to see a head-on collision as a result!

I really don't know much about car rental processes, because I do not plan to drive EVER AGAIN. Driver's tests are improving and so are drunk driving laws. My experience with maps is limited to Changchun and Beijing where, in the former, you can obtain a lovely, easy-to-use English-language map at the Shangri-la Hotel. In Beijing, good maps are sold for 5RMB as soon as you get off the train or even on the subway. It is a world class subway system--due in part to the Olympics being there a couple years ago.

On the good news front, clunkers are getting kicked to the curb. License plates ending with 3 have to be off the road on the 3, 13, and 23; those ending in 4, on the 4th, 14th, and 23. Sucks if you get a 1, because then it is 31, 1, 11 and 21 from what I understand.

If you Google "China and traffic," you get mostly stories about the freaky 10-day, 60-mile traffic jam that took place last year.

At last, let me mention that in many places, sidewalks are the provenance of cars not pedestrians. They are parked so tightly against the buildings in some places and so close next to each other that you are forced to make your way past them by veering out on to the street.