Thursday, June 04, 2015

Beijing Living 101: Traffic (Jam)

The traffic here in Beijing has always intrigued me. The first time I came I experienced traffic, but mostly from the back of a bike. That was more than 10 years ago and the bicycle kingdom was just shifting over to the automobile kingdom. Now that I have lived here for almost a year I can tell you, I want the bike traffic back again. Beijing has terrible traffic congestion, and commuting trips rank the longest in all of China
Personally, I usually take a bus to work. This is a private bus that makes a few stops before mine. After my stop, there are no more until we reach my workplace. During the APEC blue sky days when half of all cars were restricted from the roads to ensure a pleasant atmosphere for visiting leaders, my commute had a record 21minutes one way. Usually it take 35-40 minutes each way and there have been times it has taken more than 1hr. Of course, as an America my home country went through the growing pains of the automobile boom almost 50 years ago. Just about every city has kept up well with the increase of cars since then. Beijing, on the other hand, has had only 5 years to accomadate a rise in the number of autos in the capital from 5 to 6 million. For reference that is about twice as fast as the most notorious place for traffic jams in the US, Los Angeles. 

While a large degree of the traffic congestion is caused by lack of infrastructure, there is also a huge amount caused by bad or selfish driving. Many of the times that I have been stuck on the staff bus to work for more than one hour is because of a situation where a bus or block of cars has cut off an entire 3-4 lanes after running a red light. To explain a bit further, see picture. This picture is in Chongqing, I believe, but I have seen this many times in Beijing too. As a light turns from green to red a number of cars, or buses, decide to run the first couple of seconds of the red light, I suppose thinking that traffic in front of them will only take a few seconds to move and they can get out of the intersection before causing a blockage, but then they don't. So the opposing lanes also get blocked. 

I can't say I blame the drivers who do this. Traffic here is one big game of, "oh no you don't!" and road rage is actually incredibly low when considering all the nonsense, but it does happen. Any leniency towards another driver is quickly pounced on. The only way to drive is to act as if you own every lane, pedestrians don't matter, and your time is more important than anyone else's. Forget about blinker, swerve into another lane regardless of what or who is there, and yes, the breakdown lane is the one made just for you so you can pass all the rest of us stuck in the jam. It is a wonder to me that so many people have gotten, and retained, their licenses. Then again, even though I see the occasional police officer, I have never seen a policeman issue a ticket or pull someone over. Never. Actually, the police here are incredibly patient with traffic and drivers as can be seen in this incredible video. Certainly this driver would have been shot in the US. The cops are trying to help a broken down car, but this driver just can't wait. 

Crossing an intersection, by bike or on foot, is a whole new game. I have often seen a light turn from green to green left turn arrow and 30 people move halfway across the street, clogging the left turn lane. There is no green light to walk, but people do, and again it gets to the point the horns start honking and traffic slows down, just because people can't wait. This blog post from a few years ago sums it up nicely. 
Personally, I just follow the rules and the lights as much as possible. Sure, everyone an their mother is using the crosswalk on red, going through intersections without looking ahead of them, and cutting off each other left and right, but I want to live. Some people aren't so lucky