Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cab Driving in China 1

Chengdu, China

I flagged a cab on the way back from the Internet Cafe yesterday. Most taxis here look like small, green Honda's from the late 80's - although most of them are fairly new. The driver was middle-aged and Turkish.

The cab was facing away from the street after I climbed in. The driver floored it and whipped a semi-U, careening toward the traffic just as a young couple stepped in front of us from behind a truck. The driver aimed at them and floored it again. Miraculously the agile pair managed to leap out of his way.

 I think I might have screamed. The driver looked at me, laughed and sped wildly down the street weaving his way between buses, cars, bikes and pedestrians. He looked at me again.

"Man mar zou" (go slowly and safely), I told him. We looked at each other and both laughed at the absurdity of my request. He drove faster and wilder.

 I decided to try and merge with the Dao. If I was going to go, I figured I might as well have the total experience.

"Kuide Kuide" (faster faster), I told him, "Kuide Kuide."

He looked at me, smiled with respect and gave me a thumbs up, the Chinese gesture for "ALL RIGHT!" I gave him a thumbs up back and we blitzed insanely though the traffic, laughing at death.

However, this was an atypical cab ride. In China, it's usually the driving conditions that are crazy - not the drivers. On the other hand, most drivers behave like schizophrenics.

On the freeways, they are model drivers, far superior to San Francisco drivers. Chinese drivers, especially taxi drivers, rarely tail-gate. The top speed is around 55 mph and there are signs on the freeways where the drivers can measure how far they are behind the car in front of them. The ideal is 200 meters at top speed. The percentage of drivers who maintain this distance is awesome. On the freeways, the driving is orderly as hell.

On city streets, chaos reigns.  In Beijing, there are usually 3 normal lanes, a transit lane to the right, a turn lane to the right of that and then a fenced barrier and a double lane for bikes, scooters and the like. The Chinese are pursuing the American Dream/Nightmare and bicycles are now outnumbered by mopeds and powered bikes by about 5 to 1. All this is very orderly - until you get to the intersections where as many as 5 of the lanes will make right turns at the same time, usually at red lights when the pedestrians have green lights and walk signs. In addition, half of the bike and scooter drivers also go straight from the right lanes.

There are several rules to determine driving behavior in these situations:

1. Pedestrians never, never have the right away.
2. Bigger vehicles have the right away over smaller vehicles.
3. All vehicles try to maintain their speed while making right turns on red.

 In Beijing, the intersections on the main streets are about half the size of a football field with long semi-circular curves. So picture that you are speeding around a corner and confront a wall of pedestrian walking across the street. What do you do?

The correct answer is that you honk your horn and speed up. These are not San Francisco pedestrians. They are intelligent, awake and alert. They gradually move from lane to lane until the traffic finally permits them to cross. In Beijing, pedestrians will sometimes form spontaneous blocks of 20 to 50 people and slowly take over an intersection, crossing whether the light is green or not. The cars will stop for these slowly moving hordes. It's clearly not much of crime to run down a single pedestrian but mass murder is apparently frowned upon.

And then there are the side streets and lanes where all the above vehicles and people converge. I have seen drivers from all four directions take left turns at the same time. The only rule there is guts. However, this is non-macho form of the game. Once a driver gets the edge on another, he or she is let in. I have yet to see any example of road rage except for the honking - which is more practical than anything else.

And, yes, the traffic is getting worse. In Beijing, during rush hour, the average speed is about 4 miles per hour. And, 1,000 new cars are being added every day.

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