How do you cross the street in China?

How do you cross the street in China?

Crossing the street is doubtless something you do every day in your hometown or city, probably without even really thinking about it. This simple action may not be so straightforward when you are faced with China’s legendary traffic.

What is the traffic like in China?

Likely as not you have seen photos and videos on the Internet of mind-blowing traffic jams in China. There are several conspicuous reasons for China’s traffic problems.

Firstly, there is China’s massive population, the majority of who live and work above one another in high-rise buildings on a day-to-day basis. When all these people come down into the streets (whether walking or driving) there is bound to be overcrowding.

Secondly, individuals and families owning cars is a relatively new development. For many white-collar workers in Chinese cities, owning a car is a status symbol, although public transport would be perfectly adequate for their traveling needs.

Along with the masses of new cars appearing on the roads over the last few years came an overabundance of new and inexperienced drivers.

The government has introduced schemes to make the traffic more manageable such as Beijing’s odd-even rule where cars can only be driven on the roads on odd or even numbered days according to their number plates. The public transport system is generally brilliant, and constantly being improved and upgraded. But there are just too many people.

In some places in some cities there are a number of options to keep pedestrians off the street and out of the traffic such as underpasses, and these often link up with a network of underground walking streets.

What about using a crosswalk or ‘zebra crossing’?

You will often see crosswalks painted on the roads in China. My Chinese friends laughed at me for heading towards one of these.

“Why do you foreigners always try to cross the road there?”

Clearly they don’t have exactly the same meaning in China – despite the government’s attempt to get people to use them.

All the same, there is a very important basic principle that makes the crosswalks useful - just don’t expect cars to screech to a halt when you stand there like they do in most western countries!

The Rule of Size and Numbers

There is an unwritten rule about who has the right of way, and it is simple a question of size and numbers. A bus has right of way over a car, although a big heavy truck can go in front of the bus.

The safest way for you to cross the road is with a group of pedestrians, which is one reason to head for a pedestrian crossing. In some cities there are special crossing police on the street corners, frantically blowing their whistles at both traffic and impatient pedestrians.

What should you do?

Keep alert! Here are some basic reminders:

  • Don’t expect drivers to stop. They are more likely to press their horn than their brakes.
  • Don’t presume that traffic will always come from one direction – bikes and various types of motorbikes often travel on the wrong side of the road, and sometimes even on the sidewalk.
  • Watch out for E-scooters! These stealth-bikes don’t make a sound but can travel at speed and knock you over in a flash.
  • When crossing at a traffic light, don’t presume that a green light facing you means it is safe for you to cross. Look out for vehicles that are turning across your path, as well as vehicles running a red light.
  • When you step off a bus, be aware that there is often a bike lane between you and the pavement. Watch out for E-scooters, motorbikes and bikes, from both directions.
  • Where possible, use overpasses and underpasses.
  • When you finally step out to cross the road, do so with a group of others. Stick closely with them and, whatever you do, DON’T STOP and DON’T RUN.

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By Ruth Wickham
Chief Editor & Writer