Staying Alive on Beijing's Streets

If you are a person who believes that risking your life makes you feel alive, then you ought to come to China and cross a busy street during rush hour. Why? Let’s just say that traffic in China is a lot more ‘free-flowing’ than in the states. By free-flowing, I mean that drivers there tend to follow the traffic laws, unless they decide the rules aren’t convenient. If you could stand at an intersection and watch traffic for a while, you would see that red lights usually mean stop, cars usually stay in their lanes and bikes and motorcycles usually go in the same direction as the rest of the traffic. However, you would also see that at certain times during the day, many of the rules are thrown out the window and chaos reigns. Check out the video to see what I mean.

As you can see, intersections can be kind of chaotic. For those of you who don’t have much experience crossing the street in China, here’s some advice on how to survive them. The first and most important rule for crossing the street in Beijing: don’t get killed

In addition, it is important to remember the following things:

  1. Cars have the right of way, and they expect you to stop for them—not vice versa. In a crunch, most drivers will slam on the brakes to avoid hitting you, but it’s better if you let them go first. Fewer close calls that way.
  2. As you walk into the traffic, don’t stop moving. Drivers see you walking, and they anticipate where you will be when they get to you. If you stop abruptly, you put your life in danger. At the very least, you will get a honk and a dirty look if you stop.
  3. Don’t ever stop looking back and forth as you cross. Cars can seemingly come out of nowhere to scare the hell out of you (or worse). The maneuver that I had a hard time getting used to was the long, sweeping left turns that the buses make. In the states, drivers making a left turn see pedestrians crossing and wait for them. Not here (see #1). It took me a while to remember to watch back over my right shoulder while crossing. Believe me, a bus horn in your ear will help you remember.
  4. Watch out for “flying rights.” No matter what the light says, right turns are always free for cars, and there is no rule (as far as I can tell) that they even have to slow down. It’s very important that you remember to watch for this when you are about to reach the opposite curb. You think you’ve finally made it, only to look up and see a taxi flying around the corner at you.
  5. If you ever find yourself in the middle of an intersection and the light changes, don’t panic. Just try to find the center line and make yourself as skinny as possible until you see a good opportunity to continue crossing. Watch your backpack—you don’t want a bus mirror to catch it and take you for a ride. That would be too much living, even for me.
  6. In addition to the cars and buses, you also have to watch for bicycles and motorcycles, who seem to do whatever they feel like doing. Most of the time they follow the flow of traffic, but it is not uncommon to see a bicycle driving right into traffic, caution be damned. The only advice I can give you for avoiding the two-wheelers is to stay alert.

If you do get hit, don’t expect a lot of sympathy. I heard a story the other day about a bus that hit a pedestrian. Apparently the driver stopped to see how the person was, but the riders on the bus convinced him to continue on the route after a short stop (I suppose you could argue that at least the driver made sure that the pedestrian wasn’t dead before moving on).

At major intersections near tourist destinations, crossing isn’t nearly as dangerous. Cars and pedestrians have been trained to wait for lights to change. On Chang An Lu, near Tiananmen Square, the government has installed crossing guards on each corner. They whistle and wave at people whose only transgression is to look like they’re about to cross against the light. Five years ago this didn’t happen, but Beijing really worked hard to become more ‘civil’ for the 2008 Olympics. Before that, you could cross the streets at anytime as long as you didn’t get hit. At other intersections however, you can still cross on your own time. If you feel like wandering out into the middle of traffic, go for it. As long as you remember that cars rule the road and you don’t, you should be fine.