“How did the chicken cross the road?”
“It didn’t. It died because the road was in China.”
All jokes aside, this is not a post where I rant using tired, stale stereotypes about Asian people and their driving abilities. That would be against my blog’s philosophy of trying to break stereotypes. Nor is it one where I make hoity-toity suggestions about what laws I would implement to prevent zany traffic shenanigans. I’m here to tell you about my observations of traffic in a major Chinese city, and some strategy to avoid getting flattened by a bus full of office workers.
You’re standing at the edge of the sidewalk looking for a way to get to the subway station on the other side of the street. Cars zoom past you, their tailwind whipping your hair into a frenzy. Horns honk like a gaggle of rabid geese and you think it would just be better to go the long way and find a traffic light so at least you have the comfort of knowing that you’ll probably decrease your chances of injury by tenfold. You scan the length of the road and it pops out at you: a zebra-striped crosswalk not 10 metres from where you’re standing! You think, surely if I stand there, the cars have to slow down to let me cross, right?
You’ll quickly learn that there is an unwritten code between drivers and pedestrians in China that is different than in the West. Generally, in Western countries, we’re used to having drivers stop for us when we’re trying to cross at a crosswalk, at least most of the time. In China, drivers will stop for you at a crosswalk only if you’re already walking in the crosswalk. If you just stand there, they’ll drive right past you. So in order to get across the road safely, you must first put yourself in a somewhat unsafe position.
There are a couple reasons for this that I’ve observed. The first is that traffic laws are not enforced as rigidly as they are in the West. Essentially, if you’re not hitting anything or causing public hysteria with your chaotic driving, law enforcement is fairly relaxed. The second reason is that, well, China just has so many people, all packed into small spaces, that people have to sort of push their way through to get what they want, or risk someone else taking it. People usually aren’t salty about this phenomenon because they’re aware that this is the reality of living in China, so they find ways of dealing with it. It’s not that they’re terrible drivers or they don’t see you; it’s that they see you, but they also see an opening which they feel they need to take or risk accumulating precious time being stuck in traffic. Same goes with pedestrians: if they see a big enough gap between cars, they put themselves out there or waste time waiting for the next traffic gap. There is a mutual trust between drivers and pedestrians: pedestrians trust drivers to slow down and not hit them, and drivers trust pedestrians not to take too long to cross the road and make them wait in traffic.
So if all this scares you, don’t fear! It’s actually not as bad as I’m making it sound, and there are ways of dealing with it that are actually quite simple. I’d like to note that this is for crossing crosswalks and smaller, less trafficked roads. Most major roads have traffic lights and you’d have to be suicidal to jaywalk one of these.
An effective strategy is, like I mentioned before, when you find a gap, just step out into the road or crosswalk even if a car is coming. Use your judgment of course! If the oncoming car looks like it’ll plow you over, don’t try to cross! Wait for a slower one. Something my friend told me to do is to not make eye contact with the driver and just walk, the idea being they’ll slow down for you anyway. Now, although they do usually slow down, I don’t always have complete faith in them. Personally, I still look at the car, and maybe it’s the Canadian in me, but I also raise my hand and give them a small wave as if to say “thank you for not murdering me!”
So far, I’ve never had any instances where I genuinely feared for my life. Although the traffic in China is not quite what we’re used to back home, as long as everyone obeys the unwritten code of Chinese traffic, you’ll live to cross another road.