Me and Chairman Mao
  Cross-town traffic.
The other day, as I was standing on the corner watching cars coming from three different directions try to merge in a less than orderly manner--with no success at all, of course--it occurred to me that, in all my pointless blog-based blathering, I have never gotten around to discussing traffic in Beijing. Like traffic in most obscenely large, third-world countries, the traffic in Beijing is bad. Really bad. Terrible, even. On a "good" rush hour day, you're lucky to be going 10 miles per hour; on a bad day, walking would be faster, although filled with its own unique, pedestrian-based perils, which I will come to later. Plus, when it's a lovely, smoke-filled fifteen degree evening, walking across town is even less appealing than sitting in a rattletrap, not-exactly-hermetically-sealed Chinese taxi and discussing, in all seriousness, if you might all pass out and die from carbon monoxide poisoning if traffic doesn't start moving soon so you can get some fresh air.

(Is China a third-world country? Probably not. Maybe second-world, although I'm not exactly sure what that means. What I do know, however, is that until you can drink the water, you can't be first world. Also, not growing your fruit and vegetables in your own feces is another key. Much better to grow it in cow feces, for example. Actually, it's much better to just leave out feces all together, which is just sort of a general truth of life, I think. Hence the popularity of the phrase "no shit," I suppose.)

Anyway, traffic here sucks. Mostly for the usual reason, which is too many cars on the road. I don't think the Beijing road system was really designed for lots of people owning there own cars--not so big with communists, apparently--but of course now more and more people have their own cars every day. The result is, naturally, complete and total gridlock. Our apartment is maybe four miles away, but probably less, from the Microsoft building (well, one of them, anyway), and on a good day it takes about forty-five minutes to get home. On a normal day, probably an hour. And on a bad day, who knows? More than one hour, less than two. (I think our record is a mile and a half trip that took an hour.) Luckily, there aren't too many really bad days, although they do always lead to the aforementioned death by carbon monoxide discussions--fun!--since sitting in the middle of a bunch of idling cars and buses, most of which have little to nothing in the way of emissions control, for large chunks of time is not good for the respiratory system.

(I guess the only good thing about the neverending commute is that taxis are insanely cheap. A typical, forty-five minute cab ride home is less than five bucks.)

The picture below is a good example of what I mean in terms of traffic flow. This was taken at an intersection near our apartment, and this picture represents probably the best traffic day I have ever seen there. (Of course the one day I take my camera, nothing insane happens …) Anyway, it's a place where a side street meets a main avenue (it has the buses), with absolutely no signs or signals of any kind. As an added bonus, the "bike" lane is also filled with cars--in this case, the Jeep Cherokee--which only contributes to the fun. As you can see, the cars from the side street form a blockade across the "bike" lane, leaving the cars--and even the bikes--in the bike lane trapped behind them. And it goes without saying that none of the cars or buses on the main street will let anyone in, so traffic just sits there and builds up into a tangle mess of honking metal. It's not unusual to see ten or fifteen cars piled up in both the bike lane and the side street, all trying to move at the same time. Really, it's pretty entertaining in an "I'm glad I'm not in that mess!" sort of way.

No Rules, Just Right

But wait, there's more. That's just about how bad the traffic is. I haven't even gotten to the driving yet, which is, well, "creative," I guess, in the sense that whatever you can think of, you can do. Particularly since traffic enforcement by the police is basically nonexistent, and--from what I've been told--in the rare instances when the police actually do decide to enforce some real or possibly imaginary law, any difficulties can be avoided by a mutually agreed upon one-way exchange of currency. (Otherwise known as a bribe.) I think the only standing rule of the road, as far as I can tell, is "Might makes right." That is, the biggest car has the right of way in every situation. If the cars happen to be of equal size, the most expensive car wins, since money is power and all that.

So other than getting out of the way for buses and BMWs, drivers can pretty much do whatever they want. Weave drunkenly in and out of lanes? Sure. Use the bike lane to avoid traffic, regardless of the actual number of bikers with the temerity (ten-cent word!) to actual use their designated lane? Great. Simply drive between lanes because you can't be bothered to pick one or the other? Of course. Cut into a lane without signaling or even looking behind you to see if you're about to hit something? Standard operating procedure. Go the wrong way down a one way street, just because it's faster? Perfectly good plan. Honk continuously and swear at anyone who dares to impede your forward progress? Totally useful and understandable. Cruise up on to the sidewalk to park, honking at any pedestrians who have the gall to impede your forward progress? Goes without saying. Why just the other day I watched a car that was trying to leave a restaurant parking lot--AKA the sidewalk in front of the restaurant--have trouble turning across the two lanes of oncoming traffic (the bike lane and the southbound lane) to get to the northbound lane. Rather than waiting for a break, the intrepid driver simply turned into the bike lane and proceeded to go the wrong way down the aforementioned lane--bikes be damned!--until he could swerve across oncoming traffic and into the correct lane. You get the idea, I'm sure.

And that's just the cars. Don't forget the bikes. People on bikes, in my eyes, are the bravest of all commuters. While as a pedestrian you can stay on the sidewalk and be reasonably sure you won't be run over--by a car, anyway--bikers mix it up on the road with cars, vans, buses, and anything else that comes along. And, if possible, I think they obey traffic laws less than cars. They literally do anything. I have seen bikes go diagonally across intersections--through multiple lanes of traffic--on more than one occasion. Without helmets, no less!

The really crazy thing is that I swear they don't even seem to be paying attention. They just look forward and peddle slowly but surely and--apparently--hope that nothing hits them. Really, how there aren't hundreds of bikers killed every single day, I have no idea. Although I guess in a city of 13 million or so, there could be hundreds killed a day and it would take a while to notice. But really, I think I would have seen some of them be killed, and I've only seen a few minor incidents. Well, as minor as a bicycle versus car accident can be. The bikes don't seem to fare well, at any rate.

As for the pedestrians, well, that is another story for another post. But needless to say, being a pedestrian here is … complicated. And incredibly dangerous, of course, but you probably got that already. Now, however, it is almost time to go get Holly, find a cab, and fight our way through Friday night traffic. I'm hoping it will only take an hour. If nothing else, we don't have to worry too much about accidents. Since no one's going more than five miles an hour, it's hard to do too much damage. Unless, of course, you get run over by a bus. But I'm hoping that won't happen. I mean, it probably won't. Not as long as our taxi driver has the good sense to get out of the way, anyway ...
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