Dodgems

Another aspect of China that has changed markedly since I last studied here is, of course, the road usage. I remember taking a school trip to a model village in Heilongjiang in a minibus over twenty years ago. We travelled down a four lane motorway complete with painted lines and crash barriers and empty but for a bicycle coming down the middle of the opposite two lanes.

By now most people have read about the clogged up ring roads around Beijing with cars almost parked bumper to bumper at rush hour. I saw a great aerial photo once of a logjam at a roundabout where the vehicles were practically climbing over each other. Not one could move since they had all tried to find a space through which to manoeuvre their way ahead and the end result was total standstill and several miles of tailbacks. I never did read how they resolved that one but I haven’t seen many roundabouts this time.

While it seems that selfishness might have been behind this stalemate, actually the normal traffic rules, if they can be called such, allow for surprising fluidity and tolerance of fellow road users of all different persuasions; drivers here really aren’t that pushy. It’s possibly just that the teaching, according to the wonderful book Country Driving by Peter Hessler, doesn’t offer them much in the way of useful road awareness to augment what they might have learned on a bike. Practical application doesn’t allow for learning by example either: while the wide avenues of Communist city planning seem prophetically designed for automobile usage most local drivers are still pretty young in the skill.

I try not to venture off campus too much because I enjoy the calm and peace of  a relatively car-free existence. It reminds me, particularly in our shopping area, of how Beijing used to be before four wheels became good and two wheels bad. Here, like any UK university campus, the bike is king.

The first time I ventured out onto the real roads in search of my Scotchbrites I was quite intimidated by the four lane urban highway which passes our main gate. Back in Harbin days, when the traffic consisted of large articulated public buses (mayor Ken’s inspiration), so-called “bread vans” (minibuses) and swarms of bicycles I realised on experimentation that pedestrians actually seemed to stop traffic. Somehow if you stepped into the road, the metal sea would part and you would emerge unscathed on the other side. Maybe that was because motor vehicles were relatively unusual and hugely outnumbered by biped propulsion, with bicycles naturally more respectful of pedestrians (unlike in London).

Now, however, although the reverse statistic is true on main roads, the same rules still seem to apply. Everyone takes the Frogger approach to road crossing, albeit aiming to step between the cars rather than over them. As far as supremacy on the roads is concerned it still seems that while four wheels are good, two legs are better. Don’t worry though, I always make sure I have a shield of other pedestrians upstream from me just in case.

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