Originally posted to the Bromptontalk Forum on 2 November 2008, this follows on from my recent post Brompton in Beijing and is a more reflective account of some of the things I observed there.
Here’s the second instalment of my travels in China. It’s a phenomenological account (which implies that you may have a different experience or theory but this description is valid for me. I didn’t take the Brompton to Hangzhou as it was a quick one night trip with hand luggage.
Two 6-lane highways cross, forming a huge square, A bewildering array of traffic lights control the prodigious flow of trucks, buses and cars, The air is warm and humid with a damp mist limiting visibility to around 100metres. There is a light but persistent rain, the road is slick.
With no obvious signal to get them moving, a small flotilla of cyclists sets out from one corner of the square, heading diagonally across its undefined spaces towards the furthermost corner. Around them the traffic continues unabated with vehicles crossing, it seems, in several directions, intersecting the course of the cyclists and frequently sounding their horns.
Two of the cyclists are mothers with small children perched on the luggage racks behind, a middle-aged woman is talking animatedly on her phone, a granny rides an electric scooter and a wiry man pedals a cargo trike with a load of wood. Some have flapping capes of purple or yellow nylon to keep off the rain, they all look impossibly fragile against the backdrop of great trucks and hooting taxis.
You may hold your breath as they cross in front of an oncoming bus, you might wince as an impatient taxi cuts across their bows, but they sail serenely on to reach the far side of the maelstrom and disperse towards their various destinations without a backward look.
Then you look again and see people on foot standing in the middle of the traffic, marooned by bad timing, ready to be crushed it seems, but they just stand there, their only visible emotion slight annoyance, looking to see if they could slip through a gap between two converging cars or should they just wait a little?
Nothing bad happens, then the cyclists on either side of you start to move forward although the lights all appear to be against you so you go with the flow and it’s your turn to sail through the chaos. A couple of cars slip across your path so you eyeball the driver of the one following them and position yourself a little more firmly in his way. A bus converges with the cyclist on your left and he just lets his speed drop a little to stay clear and once again nothing bad happens although a great many cars sound their horns for no very obvious reason.
It’s Hangzhou, in the heart of China’s booming industrial economy. I’m riding a Dahon folder borrowed from my hotel (they had some mountain bikes but the Dahon seemed more in tune with the urban scene and it had mudguards) and I’m coming to realise that whatever other talents they may have, the people here have elevated jaywalking to an artform. We hear a lot about the contradictions of Chinese communism and Chinese capitalism but on the street it’s anarcho-collectivism, each for themselves but completely dependent on a complicated network of communal dependencies and assumptions.
For cyclists that means positioning yourself at an unmarked but crucial location in the no-man’s-land on the edge of the traffic crossing in front of you. Somewhere ahead there is a red bicycle traffic light and maybe a red pedestrian light but long before they change the first cyclists suddenly ride half way across the junction and stop dead. Your group of slightly less urgent riders lumber into motion, gears slightly too high for comfort, and roll up behind the front group just as they decide it’s time to finish the job off and you all start to pick up speed heading for the bike lane sign ahead and wondering if those red lights will ever turn green.
It’s jumping red lights by tacit committee, everybody knows the system, which seems to allow all kinds of legal and extra-legal exceptions (turning right seems to be available at all times regardless of what the lights say).
Back in Beijing, in dry sunny and fresh conditions, the atmosphere is more relaxed, the roads wider (20m wide cycle lanes round Tianenmen Square) the horns hardly used at all but you can see the same thinking in action. Cyclists and pedestrians just refuse to be intimidated and the other road users (like the Dutch they probably ride bikes themselves) go along with the flow. In three days of cycling I have only seen two examples of dangerous city driving –a motorbike and a car making unexpected moves too fast for corrections, otherwise it’s been clear that everybody watches everybody else and keeps their speed down so they can always stop if they have to.
This is a dramatic contrast to what I saw when I visited the Czech Republic not long after the fall of communism there. Like China there had been a huge rise in the use of cars but it was clear that pedestrians had no strategy to deal with it. I have a vivid memory of watching a couple of people trying to cross a not-too busy main road, They inched their way out into the road peering nervously left and right, whenever a vehicle approached they jerked back behind the line of parked cars, their body language completely fearful and no evidence that they could judge the risks involved. My brother who lives there joked that the official pedestrian crossings were just places where pedestrians went to die. A combination of their lack of judgement and the individualistic aggression and inexperience of the local drivers made crossing the road a nightmare.
I’d like to think that riding a bike from a young age has given the Chinese a sound basic road sense that allows them the confidence to look after themselves, judge when it’s safe to subvert the system and have some understanding of their responsibilities when they are behind the wheel. Their collective culture under Maoist communism may also help, especially as they have moved fairly gently from communism to capitalism, unlike the sudden change experienced in Europe.
I had an interesting conversation with a security guard outside the Netherlands Embassy where I stopped to photograph the plastic cow on the front lawn. He was a great enthusiast for cycling for health and environment and he pointed out that Beijing still had a strong neighbourhood culture with many people living and working in their local areas, making cycling ideal for both personal transport and local business transport. I guess that also creates a community of cyclists who understand their local conditions, how each junction works, how to bend the rules, and maybe they have a strong sense of “owning” their local roads compared to the longer-distance commuters in most western cities.
The roads themselves, with broad lanes for bikes where possible but no sharp separation, make for a healthy level of interaction. Cars use the bike lanes if they need to drop off a passenger or head for a parking space, buses stop in the bike lanes, cyclists swing out into the rest of the road to pass buses, cars and other cyclists. European attempts to isolate cyclists from cars and even treat them as if they were a kind of problematic pedestrian is counter-productive by comparison, allowing motorists to go on ignoring their responsibilities to others and making cycling a problematic activity rather than a normal way of transport.