Saturday, March 28, 2009

car culture in china

When I first visited Beijing in 1982, cars were a rare sight on streets clogged with bicycles. Now, bike traffic has dwindled so that it’s sidelined to narrow lanes. Seems every middle class family owns a car now. Or two. In fact, more cars are now sold in China than in the US. According to recent estimates, 3500 new cars hit Chinese roads every day. Sometimes, it feels as if all of them clog the same street, as it did yesterday when our cab was hit from behind on a two lane road jammed by four lanes of traffic. (Just a fender-bender, no one was hurt. Except for the prosperous looking businessman who had the bad luck to hit us and was being taken for as much damage as possible by vociferous driver.)

Cars, not people, have right of way on the streets. Tourists from pedestrian-friendly places like California may have an especially hard time adjusting to the fact that traffic lights here mean nothing. Red lights allow traffic to turn right without stopping. And, apparently, if the make and model of your car is impressive enough, you’re even allowed to park on the sidewalk.

Car culture started in China as far back as 1902. A wily warlord imported this turn of the century Benz from Germany to curry favor with Qing Dynasty Empress Dowager Cixi. She couldn’t drive it herself, of course. But was miffed by the sight of a driver sitting in front of her. She thought it showed disrespect on his part. So, she requested he kneel. Which made the ride so precarious, she eschewed the whole driving business after just one spin and went back to being ferried about in her sedan chair.

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