MegDesk in Beijing

Observations of Meg's Life in Beijing

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Funny Bits of English We've Seen Around Beijing

I figured this could use it's own page! It's kind of our own Beijing version of I'll keep updating it as we see more!

Nightmare on Dongzhimen Street - Part 2

Beijing Drivers

Even the best city planning would be put to the test by the current auto market in Beijing. One statistic claims that an average of 1,000 new cars hit the city streets each day! As automobile companies lower their prices, more and more Beijing-ren can afford to forgo public transportation and drive themselves. This means that no only are their more cars on the street, but there are hundreds of new drivers each day!

Yet sadly, it's not the new drivers alone that you need to watch out for. A strange combination of Chinese culture and sporadically enforced traffic laws means that most of the drivers navigating the Beijing streets are unpredictable, dangerous, and just plain irritating!

The Fan-Shaped Line

Anyone who's been in a Chinese crowd before knows that forming an orderly line is impossible here. A typical queue assumes a fan shape, spreading out widely behind the person at the front. You can see this at an airline gate, buying subway tickets, or even making a left turn on a busy road! The fan-shaped line appears anywhere that traffic must file down to one or two lanes, such as turn lanes and entrance/exit ramps.

Beijing drivers fall into two distinct categories. Those who cut in line and those who never get where they're going. The second group lines up orderly, waiting in the appropriate lane for their turn to go. They wait patiently for a chance to move, and wait, and wait... Meanwhile, everyone in the first group takes the smallest opportunity to squeeze in front of them. The tiniest gap between waiting cars is an ideal opportunity to cut in, and if no gap is available, the impatient driver will race ahead to the last possible merge point and pull up alongside the queue, waiting for a chance to merge. Nevermind that this means blocking a lane of through traffic! In the worst cases, as these drivers pile up waiting to cut in at the last minute, even more aggressive drivers will pull up alongside them, blocking another lane of through traffic. Thus the classic fan-shaped line is formed. It's not uncommon on the expressways to have 3 of 4 lanes blocked with exit traffic, forcing the rest of the traffic into a single inside lane.

The Stop Forever Lights

Another big problem with Chinese drivers is that they've never learned to adapt to the poorly-designed traffic lights. In other parts of the world, drivers at a red light will watch the other signals impatiently, waiting for them to turn yellow, so they can be ready to fly through the intersection the instant their own light turns green. This is not at all the case in Beijing. The traffic lights here have an extra setting built in so that just before the light turns green, the yellow comes on along with the red. Red+Yellow = about to turn green. Not a bad idea, right? Well, this extra cue seems to have absolutely no effect on traffic. A driver stopped at a red light will usually put on the parking brake, sit back, and relax. He ignores the Red+Yellow signal, and not until the light turns fully green, will he sit up, release the hand brake, shift into gear, and finally pull forward, just in time to let one or two other cars through before the signal turns red again.

Another special setting on the Beijing traffic signals is a flashing green. This means that the light is about to turn yellow. In the West, this would be handy for defensive driving, since it indicates a stale green light, avoiding those awkward "go/don't go" yellow moments. Here it's actually just a different color for a yellow light. Yes, there's a separate yellow light that comes after, but in Beijing, yellow actually means stop. Seriously. If you're already in the middle of the intersection, you can continue through during the yellow, but you must not start into the intersection on yellow. That's basically the same as running a red light. This means that as soon as the light turns yellow, a driver must slam on the brakes, and in some cases, drivers have been known to stop for the yellow light even when they're already partly into the intersection! Not surprisingly, this causes severe gridlock. At intersections policed by automatic cameras, some drivers even slam on their brakes for the flashing green light! It's truly amazing that this doesn't cause more rear-end collisions.

The Uncrossable Solid Line

One of the strangest things about Beijing drivers that I have yet to figure out is how they determine which rules to follow and which to break. I understand that most drivers are paranoid about even coming close to running a camera-patrolled red light (hence the brake-slamming stops at the flashing green), but in other cases it just doesn't make any sense. I've seem some drivers block traffic right in front of a policeman as they try to make a left turn out of the far-right lane, but I've also seen everyone grind to a halt as they refuse to switch lanes across a solid white line. There's something about those solid lines that have magical traffic-controlling powers.

For example, take the case of a 3-lane fan-shaped line trying to exit the expressway through a single exit lane. People are cutting in everywhere and traffic is barely moving. By the time you squeeze through the exit onto the empty 3-lane side road, you think things will be fine, but no! The exit lane is separated from the rest of the side road by a solid white line. This means that all those people who were so desperate to cut to the front of the line are now waiting their turn to reach the end of the solid line so that they can merge to the right. The two outside lanes can be completely empty, but no one will cross that line to ease/avoid the congestion.

Similarly, someone made a mistake painting the center line of the road outside our apartment. The gap in the center line isn't even with the intersection of our little side street. Instead, it's about 10 meters past the actual turn. Most of the cab drivers who take us home will actually drive past the intersection to the painted gap. Then they do a U-turn in the middle of the street to come back and make the turn!

The Good Side of Road Rage

I think the thing that's missing on the streets of Beijing is a healthy dose of road rage. Sure an annoyed driver may honk a lot at someone blocking traffic, but since everyone honks all the time anyway, it doesn't do much good. For the most part, people sit in their cars and wait quietly as someone at the front of the line wastes an entire green light cycle or a dozen cars cut in at the front of the turn lane. Some of these things would easily get you shot in Los Angeles, and while that's certainly extreme, perhaps a little shouting and a few rude gestures would help stop people from driving so stupidly. Or maybe I just need to learn to be patient. And how to say in Mandarin, "Excuse me, Mr. Taxi Driver, could you please cut in the front of this line of traffic?"

Nightmare on Dongzhimen Street - Part 1

Beijing Traffic Planning

A few months ago, one of the Chinese news sources reported that in an annual survey, Beijing dropped quite a few rungs in the ranking of cities where people would most like to live. Also, for the first time ever, pollution was no longer the number one gripe detracting from the capital! The smog fell to number two, thanks to the city's increasingly spirit-crushing traffic problems.

This really comes as no surprise to those of us living here. After a few months, you slowly begin to cope with the pollution. You get used to the idea that the sun only comes out when it's windy enough that the smog is blown away, and the online pollution index becomes just another topic for morning water cooler conversations. "Did you go outside yesterday? I'm pretty sure it was a 500!" Of course you still shudder when you hear the predictions about the rising number of lung cancer cases, and you think twice before you step outside for a breath of "fresh" air. However, in general, you really stop noticing it every day.

Now the traffic, on the other hand, refuses to be ignored. I admit that a daily cross-town commute during rush hour helps sway my opinion, but really it's just more opportunity to study a problem everyone faces. Whether it's going to the store, heading out for dinner, or meeting up with friends, you're bound to be on the road at some point during the day. In fact, I have friends who plan for every get-together to start 15 minutes late, because someone is bound to be "stuck in traffic."

The aforementioned article was actually the introduction to a piece on city planning that blamed the traffic problems on poor city planning. Beijing is becoming a victim of urban sprawl, with old downtown housing being demolished, forcing people to move out beyond the 3rd ring road. It also criticizes the ring road design as outdated and inherently inefficient, using some argument that you can only understand after earning an advanced degree in urban transportation engineering. *yawn*

Instead, based on my own admittedly biased and road-rage tinged research, I believe that the traffic problems stems from more microspheric problems. Not everyone commutes long distances, and I think most people assume rush hour will be bad in any city if they have to commute into the city center. The thing that pushes the Beijing traffic over the top is that even on a quick trip to the market or a 5-minute jaunt down the street, you're still going to be slowed down by the traffic. If the problems are still noticeable within a single neighborhood, they can't be caused entirely by the overall city layout.

The first batch of problems, I concede, does lie in city planning. However, far from the large-scale shortcomings mentioned before, these come from bad decisions by the average Wang in charge of small-scale road improvements. Frankly, there are some things about Beijing roads that are just plain stupid.

For instance, traffic lights in my tiny hometown in Indiana are better designed than those here in the capital of the People's Republic of China. Any Tsinghua University student will agree that the light cycle at Zhongguancun Dong Lu and Chengfu Lu is entirely too short. At an intersection that sees large quantities of traffic virtually 24 hours a day, the green light is just long enough for a half dozen cars to squeeze through if they're bumper to bumper. On average, you expect to wait through two entire green lights before you're close enough to the front to make it through the next one. Honestly, I would rather wait through a longer red light and have a chance to make it through the next green than to sit through green light after green light waiting for a chance to move.

And protected left turns seem to be a recent invention (recent being no more than a few months). I quietly rejoice at every intersection with a turn light, since there are still plenty without. In the latter case, turning left means pulling out as soon as possible to block one lane of oncoming traffic while you wait for the other to clear (which may not happen until after the light turns red)!

Another perpetual nightmare is the entrance and exit ramps on the ring roads. The expressways seem to follow the model used in Austin, where a frontage road serves either side of the expressway, and periodically traffic can switch from one to the other using the ramps. These are set up so that an entrance ramp leads onto the expressway and then becomes an exit ramp leading back off. The difference is that in Beijing, the portion of the ramp alongside the expressway is the length of a few cars. This means that dozens of cars are trying to squeeze onto the expressway in the same space that dozens of others are trying to squeeze off. This leads to backups and congestion at almost every single exit.

Finally, there are the buses. Instinct says that any form of mass transit is bound to ease traffic congestion, but Beijing buses emphatically prove otherwise. Not only do the buses run on the expressways along with the other cars, but they stop on the expressway as well! At each bus stop, there's a small area where the bus can pull off to the side and exchange passengers, but this leaves no room for braking or acceleration, so the outside traffic lane constantly suffers from buses slowing down and speeding up at stops (not to mention trying to cut in to get back on the road). To make things worse, a single stop often serves over 8 different bus lines, leading to long queues of buses just waiting to pull into the stop. And thanks to incredibly poor planning, in some cases the bus stops are located just before or just after one of those great entrance/exit ramps!

When you're stuck in traffic, watching as cars slowly take turns entering and exiting the freeway one at a time, and the left turn lane for the next intersection has traffic backed up far enough to block said entrance/exit ramp, it really makes you wonder what kind of people are making these decisions. And then a double-length bus cuts in front of you to reach the nearby bus stop, and you realize that by this point, it may just be a lost cause.

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