“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight, but there’s no place left to hide…”
The Boss was writing about New Jersey but he may as well have been describing my commute in Beijing. There are over 5 million cars on the Beijing roadways and well over half of those are being operated by drivers with only a few years of experience behind the wheel. It’s a steep learning curve made steeper by elitism, recklessness, and a general attitude toward pedestrians and cyclists best summed up as: “If you don’t wish to be hit by my car, please stop being poor and buy your own car.”
Beijing’s streets are not the most anarchic in China. But the friction here is striking. Since ancient times, the roads of the capital were meant to be an orderly geometric reflection of control. For decades the roads have been divided between main roads for the few cars and side lanes for the river of bicycles.
But riding on the busiest roads now can feel like a slowed-down scene from “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a churning cavalcade of cars, motorcycles, pedal and electric bikes, scooters, skateboarders, battery-powered microcars, Segway-like transporters and pedestrians who rely on the brute force of numbers to push through intersections — even if the traffic light is red.
It is not unusual to see cars perform abrupt U-turns and lane switches that defy regulations and the basic instincts of safety, or to see buses that barge in and out of lanes.
I would have gone with Thunderdome for my Mad Max reference, but then I’m old. Either one works. I’ve seen drivers barrel down crowded hutongs, plow through bicycle lanes, and park on sidewalks. I rarely ride my bike anymore; it’s too dangerous, and I feel for the guys who make a living riding around town on bikes and trishaws delivering food and packages.
Granted, I get pissed off at the E-Bikes and delivery trishaws sometimes too. Especially when I’m competing with them for the same sidewalk space. E-Bikes in particular are the silent killer. They are the sniper bullets of the Beijing streets. You never hear the one that hits you.
But the crotchety lefty in me sympathizes with the delivery guys. They are the new rickshaw boys: Semi-skilled migrant labor who work their asses off to make life more comfortable for a growing middle class. They deliver the packages. They schlep the food. They are the engine of China’s e-commerce revolution. And in return, the delivery guys get run off of the roads by the same people who rely on them for their just-in-time order of boutique Belgian baby formula.
Paging: Lao She.
And it’s not just about limiting cars. (Although that’s a good first step.) It’s also about car owners thinking about WHY they are driving the way they do. Is the car a necessary tool to get from home to work or your kids to school? Great. But if your car is just a way to show off or is being driven as an extension (or substitute) for the male genital organs then you’re part of the problem.
Classic case: Ghost Street. The infamous restaurant row is serviced by no fewer than three subway stops. But nobody takes the subway, and on a Friday or Saturday evening you can witness just about every dumbass selfish decision a driver can make. One day I’m going to open a restaurant on Ghost Street with bleachers out front and the tagline: “Come for the hot pot, stay for the demolition derby.”
Things may be looking up. An informal survey of our friends found that many have parked their cars, feeling that it’s cheaper and more efficient to take Uber or Didi rather than sit in traffic only to battle for a parking spot. I also think that more people realize that in a city where two of the biggest problems are traffic and air pollution, driving your SUV up and down the hutongs is kind of a dick move.
But time will tell if Beijing’s roads reach a level of détente or if the escalation continues. Until then, if you’re heading out in anything less than a tank keep your head on a swivel.