Traffic Beijing – YIKES
What was I thinking when I decided to borrow a bicycle for a ride on Saturday afternoon. YIKES. If women readers need confirmation that men don’t always think things through, this story is a confirmation that they are correct.
The traffic in Beijing is terrifying. Not the volume, which really isn’t much different than any major city. It is the lack of any discernable rules, or maybe the rules are not followed. Since a battle between a human being and anything motorized favors the motorized vehicle, pedestrians beware. In Beijing you check all four directions, left, right, ahead and definitely behind before crossing.
It seems that everything is well organized. There are pedestrian sidewalks, lanes for bicycles and scooters and lanes for cars. On many roads there are high barriers between bike lanes and auto lanes. There are red and green lights at the intersection and at major intersections timer’s countdown seconds to light change. One hint is that there are also red and green lights for scooters. The cars are identical to auto brands those found in any city. They have motorized three wheel vehicles, called Modi, used for many things, flatbed in the rear for delivery, enclosed plastic cabin, good for one person, in the rear as a mini taxi. Scooters and bicycles, some motorized, complete the picture.
The only rule I have observed is that cars do not drive on the sidewalk. That is unless they are parking on the sidewalk, which happens with regularity. Otherwise, the rules are flexible. It is a wild west, open territory. Maybe, I am expressing a cultural bias that western rules have intrinsic value and purpose.
I will start with the rules from most followed to least, or maybe not at all. Cars fall into this category. They mostly follow some rules. They have licenses, registration and maybe some sense of responsibility. The most, not always followed, is driving on the right. No, not all cars on the road are going in the same direction. Not often, but once a day I see a car on the right hand side driving opposed to traffic. The driver has not made a mistake. He probably wants to go back home and going around the block takes too much gas. Also, the most, but not always followed, is stopping and waiting at a red light. More frequently, actually always, cars are going forward or making left hand turns when there are no oncoming cars. Do not expect those drivers to stop for pedestrians, maybe they slow down, they definitely honk horns. You can be a hood ornament on a Chinese car. That ends the most followed, but not always followed rules. In truth, these are the only three rules I have seen followed with any consistency.
All other vehicles, which by the way, significantly outnumber cars, follow their own rules. Not their own, as in Official Rules for Scooters, but as in, I feel like doing this, rules. You avoid scooters, bicycles, etc. on the street, sidewalk, and street corners. They come from all directions all over. They are kindly ladies with grocery bags, women with children on the back, delivery men rushing to get the hot meal out and return. The amazing and most frightening is the three wheel delivery cart which somehow they manage to pack to three times the width of the vehicle and twice the height of the driver. These things are perilously balanced, viciously wide and quite abundant on the streets. Then the people on bicycles.
The courtesy is that everyone honks a horn when they are about to pass. This makes for a very noisy road, since everyone is passing the bicycle and honking, scooters with men are passing scooters with ladies, scooters with one person are passing scooters with two people, cars are passing scooters, Modis, bicycles and each other. Honk, HONK, HOOOONK.
Nearly two weeks into my stay, my legs are tired from walking I asked my landlord if I could borrow a bicycle. He gave me a choice and I took the black one without the child seat. Neither was high enough for an adult but choices were slim. I’ll make do. A sunny Saturday afternoon, Panjiayuan, the wonderful flea market was only one mile and a quarter away. What a short ride on a nice day to test myself.
YIKES. What was I thinking? Actually, I was clearly not thinking. If standing on a corner as a pedestrian was risky, what was I doing in the melee?
In the world economy, China is inching up on America as the world’s largest. We should not mistake this for the reality of life for the individual. China’s population is four times the US population and the income per person in China is therefore one quarter of that in the US. This is a calculation easily made in the abstract, but becomes real on the ground in Beijing. The bicycle he offered, which he considered, “good” would be in the junk heap in America. But off I went.
Pedaling into the street, I stopped to make check for oncoming cars. To my surprise, SURPRISE!!!!, the brakes did not work very well. Left into the street, no cars, over to the bike lane on the right. One block to warm up. Whoops, a car parked in the bike lane, have to move left to the traffic lane. Whew. No problem. Coming onto the corner. All of a sudden a motorized cab pulls in front of me and stops. Quick stop, no brakes, put feet on ground. New lesson, really go slowly.
Left turn onto major street. Even though I am on the right side of the right lane, bikes, and scooters are coming towards me. Who has the right of way? I focused my eyes on the oncoming rider waiting for their commitment to a direction. Maybe it was also the focus and expression that said, “You had better move because I am not.”
The next two blocks were the major challenge because they were very large thoroughfares. The bike/scooter lane was separated by a barricade from the car lane, but cars were coming at me and then other bicycles, and then scooters and then some more cars. Sometimes I swerved and sometimes the screech of the brakes gave me goose bumps. Then on to Ring Road 3. This is one of the extremely busy roads. The bike/scooter lane was barricaded from the auto traffic, but still bikes, scooters, cabs, etc. were coming toward me in this narrow lane.
Arrived at Panjiayuan. A 10 minute bike ride replaced a 25 minute walk. A bit sweaty, but triumphant. This is not Wal-Mart or the local fairgrounds. There is limited parking. Scooters have a parking area overseen by a woman who is quite competent at collecting her fee. I found a railing and began to lock my bike and she came along to charge me 2 YUAN. A public street, a public railing and still being charged. After my death defying ride, 2 YUAN, about 30 cents was not worth the debate. Later, my landlord told me that the usual charge was 1 YUAN. Ripped off before I even got inside.
What a wonderful feeling. I had arrived at Panjiayuan, slightly damp from the exercise, 2 YUAN poorer, but refreshed.
The ride home, like the ride out, was highly eventful and challenging. Even more cars decided the bike/scooter lane had less traffic than the car lanes and the lane was crowded with parked cars. Cars with tinted windows are difficult to stare down, and they are also bigger, so I spent much time screeching to a halt and ducking between parked cars. Getting more confident I followed the rules for bicycles, the I think I want to go there rule. Light was red, couldn’t cross the street so I went up the wrong way on the pedestrian crossing.
One more block to go and still survived. Arrived at the gate. Decided to get off the bike, walk it to the building and lock it up. Walked upstairs to the apartment. Took off my coat. Got into bed and curled up in a fetal position.
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