Without a doubt the first thing an American will notice upon arrival in Beijing is the massive amount of people, and consequently the massive amount of cars composing Beijing’s traffic. However, unlike in any comparable city in the United States, Beijing’s car and pedestrian traffic does not appear to obey any traffic laws. Cars drive down the wrong side of the street, swerve around each other, narrowly avoiding running into each other, honking wildly, or running down passersby. Pedestrians regularly defy traffic laws, walking through busy intersections while lights are red and jaywalk across multi-lane roads. Meanwhile a variety of scooters and bicycles make their way through the throng.
The question of how Beijing and China’s traffic as a whole developed so chaotically relates directly to the rising economic factors of the country. As Chinese citizens of Beijing earn more money, a car becomes more affordable and desirable. Many couples are gifted a car when they get married, and the upwardly-mobile population of China has determined cars are the new statement of prosperity. Of immediate note is the fact that Beijing traffic does not follow the rule of Right of Way for pedestrians or other vehicles. Initially there were so few cars in Beijing that the few which did drive around the city were given right of way over pedestrians or bicyclers who rarely saw automobiles. However, as the car gained its popularity in China, the rule remained the same and pedestrians still regularly yield to cars. This means that crosswalks are particularly dangerous around the times the crosswalk sign is changing, because if a pedestrian is not off the street or at least out of the way of traffic they are likely to be run over in the flood of oncoming traffic.
Honking a car horn also has changed its meaning entirely in China. American drivers typically only honk their horns when they are angry, frustrated, or upset with other drivers on the road, typically those not following the rules of the road. In Beijing, honking of car horns is used to notify people that a car is nearby and coming through a street; it is less a sign of frustration and anger and more a warning signal to pedestrians and other cars to watch out and pay attention. This usage is quite outside the normal American point of view and can lead the casual observer to believe that Beijing car drivers are chronically angry at each other.
Pedestrian foot traffic also shares its part of the blame in this picture of road-bound chaos. Pedestrians will regularly step off of sidewalks, walk through the middle of side streets, and cross at crosswalks that are not signaling that it is safe to pass. Many times at busy intersections pedestrians will form crowds at both sides of a street they know is about to change to a green light, walking across before the light changes. These mass movements of people serve to dramatically change the flow of Beijing traffic almost entirely without planning, defying the timing of traffic signals and leaving cars with a mob of people crossing in front of them. In this way, running a yellow light as a car can end up killing people.
Regardless of the described situation, I have yet to see a serious car accident in Beijing involving cars or pedestrians. Official reports from 2010 have only recorded 450,000 car accidents yearly in Beijing, which seems large but is close to the official figures reported for New York annual car accidents. Whatever the future brings for Beijing, the traffic probably won’t improve.