In China, the meanings of cars

In China, different cars mean different things, and sometimes they have different consequences. That peasant-driven speeding dump truck with its headlights off at night is not going to stop for that red light. And if you don’t know what a black Audi with tinted windows *means*, you’d better find out. So here’s a helpful article:

In China, Car Brands Evoke an Unexpected Set of Stereotypes
“Audi is still the de facto car for government officials,” said Wang Zhi, a Beijing taxi driver who has been plying the capital’s gridlocked streets for 18 years. “It’s always best to yield to an Audi — you never know who you’re messing with, but chances are it’s someone self-important.”

And of course there’s lots more on traffic in China:

Traffic right-of-way: China vs. Canada

This is our second time coming back to Canada after extended time in China. This time (unlike the first time), slipping back into driving and biking has been easy. I haven’t messed up traffic patterns yet like last time, even though I’ve been biking to work and driving other places for a month now. But one aspect of Canadian — or at least suburban greater Vancouver — that has really stood out to me this time is right-of-way, particularly crosswalks.

Right of way in Tianjin, China is simple:

  1. If you are in the way, you have right of way. Lights and crosswalks are basically decorations.*
  2. Size + speed + honking = in the way, even if you’re technically just on the way.

But in Canada, if you’re in the crosswalk, you’re golden. You’re king of the road. Your apparently inviolable right of way extends as far as the crosswalk stripes. You can take your sweet time. I’ve even had drivers wanting to turn right stop and wait because they saw me approaching the crosswalk. I have to wave and smile every time; I can’t get over it. I’ve yet to get honked at, and I don’t know what it would take: maybe sit down in the middle and start texting?

Anyway, that’s probably the first big impression I’ve had this time coming back (aside from the air, trees, mountains, friendliness, cleanliness, orderliness, tastiness, safety-ness, expensiveness, and extreme-to-the-point-of-unconscious-Orwellian-levels-of-hypocrisy political correctness). And the handicapped stuff. There’s way more accommodation here. The buses lower on hydraulics so elderly and physically disabled people can step up, and if that’s not good enough a ramp folds out! Crazy.

*(P.S. – I should note that this seems to be changing. I’ve seen traffic both improve dramatically and devolve noticeably during our years in Tianjin. So when in doubt, follow the locals, if you dare.)

Related reverse-culture stress and comparative traffic stuff:

Tianjin street market dash (video)

I biked with one hand on the camera, video running, through our neighbourhood street market. It’s not as scary as the first time I tried videoing while biking in Tianjin, but it’s definitely more colourful. So without further ado, here’s a 6pm summertime glimpse of our neighbourhood in China! (These video clips are on YouTube, so if you’re in China you won’t be able to see them without help.)

Then I decided to go back through the other way for a different view:

More about Chinese markets and traffic:

Dear Tianjin subway driver

To: the subway car driver who saw me sprint through the station at 8:39am only to be mere seconds too late and have the subway car doors almost take my big foreign nose off when they closed right in front of me, who sensed my despair as I looked at the monitor and saw nine minutes until the next train, who must have guessed that there was no way I could wait nine minutes and still clock in at work on time, and who instead of pulling away like normal opened the doors back up and let me on,


– Joel

Tianjin bike lane hero grandpas curse out obnoxious bus 天津大爷加油!

I just saw something… satisfying. It’s this morning around 10:45. Traffic is horribly constipated and visibility is less than two city blocks even though it’s “sunny.” A bus has cut into the bike lane so he can sneak up the side and budge back in near the front of the line. Of course this means a whole line of cars have decided to ride his coattails — all of them displacing the cyclists. The masses of bikers, me included, have to jump onto the sidewalk just to get by. Maybe one bike could squeeze past, but just maybe.

I realize there’s something odd as I approach the bus, which is sitting about 100 meters from the intersection (卫津路/南门外大街和南京路): it’s not moving and its front door is open. Facing the bus, right in the middle of the lane, is a lone, stubborn, indignant old man on his bicycle, wagging his finger at the driver through the windshield and giving him a big tongue-lashing. The driver is just sitting in his seat with that safely neutral/passive posture you see a lot, not willing to engage. A middle-aged passenger who looks like he thinks he’s somebody is out of the bus and trying to argue with the old man, who’s having none of it. Me and the other passing cyclists are chuckling to one another; 加油, Grandpa!

I want to take a picture but decide against it. When the old man finally starts to move on I head up to the stop line at the intersection with the rest of the herd. The bus inches forward; with a high curb on one side and a guardrail on the other, the bike lane barely contains the bus. Wishing I’d taken a photo of the bike lane hero, I turn around to see that the bus has stopped again because another old man, this time on a three-wheel cart, has parked himself directly in front of the bus and is giving him what-for. This guy has a case, too, because there isn’t enough room for his sānlúnchÄ“ to go around and those things are harder to lift onto the sidewalk. The light turns green and I jump back onto the sidewalk to take a photo, but I’m five seconds too late, so the bike lane hero grandpas remain anonymous. Still, it was nice to see those lane-hopping ozone-puncturing asphyxiators get what they deserve! :)

Today’s commute by the numbers

What a half-hour’s bike ride during Friday morning rush hour can get you in Tianjin:

  • People who stared at me: 4
  • People who took no notice of me: hundreds
  • Red lights: 8/11 (meaning I had to stop for 3)
  • Buses I wanted to curse at: all of them, but 4 especially noxious ones in particular
  • Groups of migrant construction workers protesting their late wages: 1
  • Cars on fire: 1
  • Buildings I should be able to see but can’t because of the air pollution: dozens? scores? hundreds?
  • Years shaved off my life due to the air pollution: incalculable

Five days a week I bike half an hour one way to work; so 13.2 kilometers total there and back according to google maps. The numbers above are only for the morning commute to work. There really was a car on fire this morning.

How to: Confuse the traffic in your hometown

It’s rush hour, and I’m crossing the road with my bike, standing there looking at the cars looking at me, all of us wondering why the other isn’t going. I’d stopped in the middle of the crosswalk to wait for the line of cars turning right to finish. I’d assumed they weren’t going to wait for me to finish crossing.

I try to wave the first car through, but he doesn’t go until I look away. But the next car tries to wait for me, too. I look away and wave him through, wondering what the chances are of getting two overly-polite drivers in a row.

They were waiting for me, of course, because I was in the crosswalk and pedestrians have right-of-way. Right of way? For pedestrians? Traffic rules? I thought being in the way gave you right of way. It was so weird to see cars actually voluntarily stop to make way for anything that for a moment I didn’t know what to do. But that’s how it works; I asked my dad when I got home.

In Tianjin if we want the cars to stop for us we just step in front of them and force them to stop, or at least swerve, or adjust their trajectory. But in Surrey, crosswalks are magic!

My autopilot needs to be reprogrammed, apparently.

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