Saturday, April 11, 2009

Driving in China

As a long time “car-nut”, I always notice the particular vehicles in the countries I visit. I filled a media card in Cuba taking pictures of all the old cars, I enjoyed the old Volkswagens in Brazil and Mexico, and was fascinated by the way Japan has embraced the downsized cars, as well as their unique “Chopperized” scooters. I had not idea what to expect in China.

The first thing I noticed is that there are NO old cars at all. Everything is relatively new, I'd say most are less that five years old. I thought I might see some older communist era vehicles, or some older Japanese cars, but everything is new. This might be because I am living in a very modern area with lots of upwardly mobile successful people, who can afford new cars, but you would think there would be an occasional old car. The other thing is that there is very little individualization of cars. I do not see many options added, fancy paint, racing wheels – no customs at all. Really, other than seeing some models I have not seen before, the automotive scene in China is pretty boring.

I was also surprised at the amount of cars from Europe. I would have expected lots of Toyota, Honda Nissan, Mazda, and Hyundai, but although there are lots of the Asian brands, the Europeans certainly seem to have the market share. Almost all the taxies are Volkswagens, and the brands Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagens, Peugeot, and Citroen all seem to do well here. I saw one Cadillac, one Chevrolet, but all kinds of Buick – what is that all about? There were also some brands I did not recognize, assuming them to be home grown Chinese makes.

Now if the vehicles are not particularly exciting, I'd say driving certainly is. The road system is really very good, and their traffic lights are the best I have ever seen. Every light has a counter, that tells you exactly how many seconds you have remaining to get through the intersection. This makes it easy to know how long you have to wait for the light to change. Even the turning arrows have separate counters. Those red lights back home seem to take forever to change, but here I see that the longest you have to wait is about 30 seconds. Now this is a good idea – no actually it is a great idea, but it would help if the drivers actually followed the lights. Because you can see when the light is gong to change, drivers leave early, and many keep coming through the light even thought they can see they only have 2 seconds left. Fortunately I did not see much speeding, which is good, because there was lots of very slow drivers. I suspect that there are many new drivers who are not really that confident, so they drive slowly. Parking is obviously not included in any of he driving lessons. Drivers park anywhere, often double parking, and parking on the wrong way on a one way street – did he back all the way down there? Corners seem to be a favourite place to park; just nose into the curb and get out. Perhaps it is then harder for anyone to park behind you.

The horn seems to be the most important part of vehicles here in China. Everyone makes maximum use of their horns to warn people where they want to go. When overtaking another vehicle, they lay on the horn to get the slower vehicle to move out of the way, and even if they are turning on a red light, they blast the horn if someone is in their way. Of course the interesting thing is that because everyone is constantly blowing their horn, no one listens to them. On a bus ride from the airport, the driver would madly flash his lights and blast the horn when a vehicle was in his lane, but he always had to change lanes and find a way around, because I never saw anyone actually respond to the horns. It just seems to be habit now.

Drivers do not seem to look where they are going. When they want to pull into the road they just pull out. I have almost hit a couple of cars while riding a bike, as they turned corners or pulled out of driveways, and the rule of “catch the driver's eye” is useless, because they all just seem to look only forward. I noticed this particularly when walking. Even if you have a “walk” signal, drivers will look straight ahead, ignoring pedestrians. The “walk” signals certainly do not mean it is safe to cross.

Now if the cars are not particularly interesting, the scooters and bicycles more than make up for them. Here is where you see the old vehicles. There are probably more scooters in China than there are cars, and the variety is amazing. You can buy them for less than $1000.00 and they come in every imaginable colour from pink to lime green. Most of them are electric, and there are very few gas motorcycles. They vary from simple bicycles with electric motors added, to fancy high end models with plastic wind shields & skirts, wooden floorboards, and chrome wrap-a-round bumpers. You see anyone riding them, from young people, to grandmothers, city workers, to business women in fancy suits and high heels. They do not drive on the main roads, sharing special lanes with bicycles, and I don't even think they need to be licensed or registered, as they all seem to have the licence plates I saw on the showroom models.

One of the first things you learn when arriving in China is to watch out for the scooters. Pedestrians have to be very careful. Crossing a road involved first getting across the bicycle/scooter lane before you can even think about the cars. These scooters run so quietly you cannot hear them coming, and they can go quite fast. In addition, they do not seem to follow any traffic rules. They go through red lights, turn against the lights, and even drive down the bike lane on the wrong side of the road. Looking at the condition of some of them I'd say this is a problem for them as well – many are scraped, bent, cracked, and dented. Looking over the rows of them locked up in parking areas all over the city, very few are without some damage.

I brought my international driver's licence, thinking I might want to rent a car. I think for now I'll stick to two feet.

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