Thursday, January 2, 2003

THE STREETS OF BEIJING


Beijing streets
(South China Morning Post, Jan. 2, 2003)

by Philip Cunningham

On this cold winter morning, a honey voiced DJ alerts drivers to jam-ups on Second Ring Road, Third Ring Road and scattered locations across the Beijing.  “Too many private cars,” grumbles my taxi driver as traffic comes to a standstill.
He has a point. Taxis serve the public while the private car, which in the last year has made alarming inroads into the leafy compounds and bicycle cluttered lanes of Beijing residents, is well, private.  Unlike LA, which for better or worse grew up with the automobile, Beijing’s traditional layout makes few concessions to the greedy demands of automotive life.  There’s something tragic and ugly about cars dripping oil on the marble paving stones of Qing dynasty courtyards, blocking crowded sidewalks, hogging bicycle lanes and constantly honking people out of the way. While private car ownership is still rare, a newly auto-empowered generation is making their presence known, like the neighbor of mine who has her driver honk the horn every morning even though she leaves at the same time everyday. “If I want him to blow the horn in front of my door, it’s my business,” she said when queried about this, asserting her “rights” while echoing the proverb about each minding the snow on their own front step. Problem is, she has a thousand neighbors in hearing distance of that front door.
Perhaps being the owner of something powerful, expensive and rare enhances one’s sense of entitlement. But an uneven distribution of transportation resources brings out conflict, even in car-saturated America where sports utility vehicles and “regular” cars engage in something akin to an arms race fueled by uneven vulnerabilities.  All of a sudden, a regular car became something small and defenseless that could get totally creamed in a collision.  SUV’s are not just unsightly gaz-guzzlers, they are killing machines that decapitate their victims.
There are numerous, hard-to-confirm reports of impoverished peasants blocking rural highways to protest corruption. In one flare up on Beijing’s airport road in November, farmers squeezed off their land demonstrated against a local official who allegedly pocketed their compensation money to buy three new black cars.
Although Beijing is enjoying unprecedented prosperity, it is rapidly becoming a city of two classes, those with cars and those without. Cars are more than a status symbol, they are instruments of dominance. When the highway is clogged, cars flood the bike-only paths, forcing bicycles into the gutter or onto the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians up against the wall. If you attempt crossing the ever-widening streets of Beijing at the light, you are at risk of being hit by cars that speed up rather than yield to pedestrians.
A recent CCTV children’s show featuring a day in the life of a traffic cop had a white-knuckle scene showing two kids watching two traffic cops direct the traffic on a busy road. Even with the camera crew and cops standing there, one could see cars speeding up to beat the red light and swerve past pedestrians.
On narrow streets where high speeds are not usually possible, non-stop honking is used clear a path. Why are car-owners in such a rush compared to everyone else? Beijing’s world-famous hutong, laid out in an intricate maze pattern pleasing to the eye, fascinating to the stroller, home to countless generations centuries before cars were even invented, are being slashed open to make way for wider roads if not torn down entirely. As the song about the new, improved Beijing proudly proclaims, “our streets are getting wider and wider.” 
Earlier this year a Chinese oil company built a Texas-sized gas station next to the ancient imperial retreat of Beihai Park, one of Beijing’s better-preserved historic zones, but met with enough local opposition to be fenced up.  The closure of the unsightly and unnecessary fire hazard adjacent to an ancient architectural treasure proved to be temporary; the fence was taken away and the gas station is now open for business.
“But Americans have cars!” cries the nationalist voice, smarting from countless indignities, real and imagined. “We Chinese don’t want to be seen as bicycle and bus riding people. We can have cars too.”  Indeed, China has become one of the world’s largest consumers of cars, registering a five fold increase in automotive imports from Japan this year. Xinhua News promotes the line that individual car ownership is to be encouraged, dismissing the chorus of voices worried about safety, the environment and the stark inequities.
All of a sudden the private car, and the highway lifestyle that goes with it is king. With hundreds of new cars hitting the streets of Beijing every day, the foolish mistakes made in cities where man has become servant to the automobile are being blindly repeated, if only out of vanity. In the rush to become “civilized,” life is becoming less civil.
But there are glimmers of hope. Beijing still has the most generous bike paths of any big city in the world.  Mini-buses and motorcycles are banned from the inner city.
Traffic crawls haltingly even though it is well past rush hour and the streets are cleared of snow. The taxi driver tunes into traffic radio 1039 AM where a honey-voiced DJ gets onto the unlikely topic of sword fighting. It’s trickle-down Zen wisdom from “Heroes,” the Zhang Yimou epic currently packing in the crowds in Beijing, a talkative riff on the implications on “having, and not having, a sword in hand, a sword in mind.”  A short while later a call-in listener skillfully applies the Zen sword metaphor to the knot of Beijing’s traffic mess. “If we do not have cars on hand, if we do not have cars on mind, if we all use public transportation, there will be no traffic problem.”