Giant on the move
Fear and loathing on the streets of Beijing
I didn’t realize how scary Beijing drivers were to overseas visitors until I came back to the city from a year in the United States.
I had lived in Beijing for eight years before I left for California last summer. Back then, I could cross the city’s streets without fear or anger, and just smiled when my foreign friends complained about the bad manners of Beijing drivers.
But the problem became apparent to me the other day when I was almost hit by a car at a crosswalk. I was walking on the marked crosswalk along a major avenue when a car sped by, missing my heels by just a few inches. It had already sped off down the street before I recovered from the shock to register my anger.
I noticed that Beijing drivers seldom give any courtesy to pedestrians unless there is a red light glaring at them. China’s traffic laws do require drivers give way to pedestrians at intersections. Why do so few Chinese drivers obey them?
I asked several Beijing drivers this question. They said that it was not feasible for them to observe the rules: Large crowds of pedestrians constantly gather at intersections and strode across streets, no matter whether the traffic lights were red or green. Thus drivers would have to wait forever if they give way to every pedestrian.
With more than 16 million residents in Beijing and many of them regularly ignoring traffic rules, drivers’ blaming pedestrians sounded somewhat reasonable.
But the drivers I talked to admitted that they themselves had bad driving habits. One of them said that there was a historical reason for low awareness of traffic rules in China. Virtually no Chinese individual owned a car three decades ago.
Many Beijing residents didn’t learn to drive or own a car until ten years ago when the middle class of the city became able to afford it. Most early drivers didn’t care much about traffic rules, since there were so few motor vehicles to share the road with.
This has changed a bit. Most Beijing drivers don’t drive through red lights any more. But it might take decades for them to give way to pedestrians at crossroads when there is no red light.
Unfortunately, pedestrians who are used to being respected at crosswalks in their home country will continue to be scared, and perhaps maddened, by Beijing drivers during the Olympic Games, and in years to come.
Linda (Linjun) Fan is a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. She was a journalist in Beijing for a few years before she went to California in 2007.
Picture by David Gray