BEIJING - Since late last year the way Chinese people cross the road has been receiving particular attention. Dubbed Chinese-style Of Crossing The Road, this phenomenon refers to the behavior of Chinese pedestrians, who cross an intersection not based on red and green lights, but on whether or not there are enough pedestrians to cross the road with you.
Several cities have taken strict measures to discourage this behavior. However, up to now it's proved quite difficult to shake the collective inertia. This is a particular phenomenon worth a closer look.
Since May 6, Beijing has been punishing Chinese-style Crossing The Road. Any pedestrians and non-motor vehicle drivers who disobey the traffic police and who run red lights or jaywalk are penalized at the scene. The fines are 10 Yuan ($1.6) for a pedestrian and 20 Yuan ($3.2) for a non-motor vehicle driver.
"It has been ten days since Beijing authorities started to fine pedestrians and non-motor vehicles for running red lights, however the phenomenon is still not uncommon," one newspaper reported.
The same article, however, noted that the majority of jaywalkers seem to be the elderly. "They seem to do it as a last resort.... The green light is only on for a very brief time, meanwhile there are cars still turning the corners at the same time."
As early as 1957, the Chinese architect Liang Sicheng criticized Beijing's planning of wide roads such as Chang'an Avenue: "This will take a sprinter a good 11 seconds to dash across while an ordinary person needs more than a minute. For ladies with bound feet, it will certainly be a challenge."
Unfortunately the decision-makers didn't endorse such criticism. These officials were convinced that if the roads were not wide enough, the traffic would be blocked. They also believed that in future problems would arise from having roads that were too narrow rather than too wide.
In 1958, the Beijing overall urban plan stated that the main trunk roads of the city should be 120-140 meters wide, the general roads 80-120 meters wide, and the secondary roads 60-80 meters wide. After several decades of construction, Beijing's wide roads are invincible, but they haven't improved the flow of traffic. On the contrary, they have led to greater influx of cars into the downtown area and caused even larger scale congestion, or worse, accidents.
“Eternal traffic jams”
In 1999, the World Congress of Architects was held in Beijing. During the congress, Vivienne Japha, the chairman of the South African Institute of Architects died after being hit by a car while crossing a Beijing road. Peter Davey, an English architecture scholar wrote about Beijing: “A vast city of 12 million people, it stretches to the horizon in every direction, an exemplar of most of what's wrong in turn-of-the-millennium architecture and urbanism. … Little vehicles have to contend with huge camions and masses of taxis and buses which are either locked into apparently eternal traffic jams or roaring along at terrifying rates."
Beijing's wide roads are designed for cars. Their immensity puts the pedestrians at a disadvantage. Crossing roads thus becomes a social issue. To defend the rule of vehicles on the ground, this city has built the world's largest collection of pedestrian overpasses. But walking on the ground is human nature. Many people, especially the old, sick or pregnant, are unable and unwilling to climb up the overpasses, thus resulting in the numerous violations. Should human nature be blamed?
From the motor vehicle point of view, the construction of wide roads is in fact not a wise move. Most Chinese cities go for the “wide and loose” two-way traffic models hoping to have a smoother flow this way. But at the intersections of this system, there coexist traffic going straight on and left turn traffic. They interfere seriously with each other and greatly reduce the flow. Besides, because cars are running at the same time on multiple lanes, the more lanes in the same direction the more the flow of traffic is reduced. This is why in the advanced Western countries most cities would rather go for the “narrow and dense” one-way model. Not only does this avoid the conflicts of left-turn and opposite direction traffic, and have a 50-70 % greater flow capability than the two-way system, it also greatly facilitates pedestrians crossing and saves the pain of building overpasses.
Building wide roads are both inhumane and inefficient. It’s especially regrettable that on these large crossroads, not only do cars not give priority to pedestrians; the traffic police turn a blind eye as well. Every time I yield my right-of-way to pedestrians while doing a right turn, drivers of the cars behind me are always furious and lean on their horns instantly. Regarding the pedestrians as unimportant has become the dominant culture of motor vehicle owners. Isn’t it sad that our discussions of the Chinese-style road crossing never gets past the sarcasm?