Monday, July 4, 2011

Traffic Cycles

Before coming to Beijing, I had read article after article about China's newfangled car culture and how it's overtaking the throngs of bicycles that once crowded the streets. But once here, I was pleasantly surprised to find that though cars are indeed doing most of the crowding, there are still plenty of bicycles around to put even the most bike-friendly U.S. cities the shame. Bicycles are parked everywhere, and I've spotted bicycle-specific rain ponchos with long slits down the sides, so that you can lift the front up and cover your legs and arms while biking (I want one). Apparently, bicycling as a percentage of trips in Beijing dropped from 60 to 40% between 1990 and 2000, then down to about 20% by 2009. That's a drop, but that's still 20%, a lot higher than Portland's 6% or so that tops U.S. statistics. 

And it's clear that city planners have incorporated bicycles into their road designs, which, apparently, they've been doing since the very first Five Year Plan. Most major roads--and most roads here seem to be major roads--have bike paths separated from major traffic with   bush-lined infrastructure. Smaller roads have bike lanes protected with the ubiquitous little white gates that I'm sure the City of Beijing has a patent on. Even some of the smallest roads in the darnedest places still have painted bike lanes.

Which is all well and good, but doesn't mean much of anything, because nobody seems to bother to honor the intentions of the city planners. If wishes were bicycles, civil engineers would ride. Bikers ride both inside the bike land and outside, with and against traffic. Pedestrians walk inside the bike land and the road, too. Nobody seems to pay much attention to traffic lights. And of course, the king of the road is the car, which gladly runs through both bike lanes and sometimes sidewalks, honking at anything with less than four wheels that dares get in its way. I've been honked at by a car while walking on the sidewalk twice so far. I never knew walking on the sidewalk could be such an audacious act. 

My roommate calls crossing the street in China a game of frogger, and that's about right. People will walk into the street and walk forward and back across it, dodging honking cars and buses, all the while with babies and dogs in tow. At my school's orientation, the teachers advised us to ignore traffic lights and just follow the crowd when crossing the street. And that has a certain type of logic to it, especially considering how every single road seems to be an eight-lane arterial not conducive to easy crossing. I wish I could say that there's a sort of chaotic beauty to it, too. But traffic fatalities are already the leading cause of death for Chinese under 45 years old, with the death rate doubling in the past 20 years, and that's not even counting unreported traffic deaths which may amount to even more than reported ones.

There's a certain logic to following the crowd, but there's also a logic to being the iconoclast by obeying the rules. These past few days I've been eschewing my school's advise to instead wait at the intersection, perched atop my flying pigeon, watching the crowd scuttle forward as I wait patiently for the little green man and the little green bike (Beijing is cool enough to have traffic lights just for bicycles). I've noticed that now I don't get honked at by city buses barreling at me before making their left turns anymore. That's a good thing.

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