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Harmony. It is the very foundation of Chinese culture. For every yin there is a yang. Or, more precisely, yin and yang co-exist and balance each other. One cannot exist without the other.
And so it is with economic development. While I fully endorse the benefits of economic development, it comes with some baggage. Pollution levels typically rise. (The people who create the smallest carbon footprint in the world are also the poorest.) More rubbish is generated and landfills fill up faster. And while people typically enjoy access to better healthcare, disease is more easily spread by a mobile society.
This trade-off has become increasingly apparent to me personally in the area of transportation. China now boasts the largest automotive market in the world. Once dominated by pedestrian and bicycle traffic, transportation in China is increasingly dominated by the automobile.
More automobiles are now produced in China annually than in the US and Japan combined. The number of cars on the road is expected to reach 200 million by 2020. In Beijing alone, 750,000 additional cars were added to the streets in 2011, before restrictions were placed on the number of new license plates that could be issued through the implementation of a low probability lottery system. (More than 2 million applicants now compete for fewer than 200,000 new plates each year.)
With more traffic, of course, come more accidents, a reality greatly inflated by the fact that the Chinese are generally intolerant of traffic regulations and the vast majority of drivers now on the streets are novices. The middle-aged driver next to you at the stoplight may have been driving for a matter of weeks.
Many Chinese, of course, continue to travel by bicycle. While the Chinese were skeptical of the bicycle when it was first introduced in the 1800’s they ultimately came to embrace it and it is estimated there are now more than 500 million bicycles plying the streets of China. Most are simple in design. They have a single gear and, without exception, a basket on the front.
Most bicycles (called zi xing che) in China also have a flat medal frame over the back tire that is designed to lash cargo to. More often than not, however, you will see a woman there riding sidesaddle. And few of these passengers hold on to the driver. They appear to have an unbelievable sense of innate balance and somehow manage to keep their feet, with ankles typically crossed, out of the spokes.
Road touring and bicycle racing are quite popular in China, particularly in the more affluent areas, and these enthusiasts typically ride the latest in titanium technology and are dressed in the kind of outfit you would find in the Tour de France, complete with the latest in aerodynamic and colorful helmets.
The touring enthusiasts, however, are very much in the minority. I have yet to see a typical Chinese cyclist wearing a helmet, and that includes the children. It’s a risk, for sure, particularly when you consider that a family of three often travels together on one bicycle – the father pedaling, the mother sitting sidesaddle on the back, and the youngster sitting in a makeshift seat behind the handlebars. (I’ve actually seen a family of five riding on a single scooter, all without helmets.)
Thankfully, most roads in China have a bicycle/pedestrian lane and all of the major boulevards in the urban areas boast separate lanes, typically separated from the automobile lanes by a concrete island resplendent with flowers and other vegetation. Unfortunately, drivers looking to circumvent congestion and jump ahead of the queue at stoplights routinely use these lanes as well.
Perhaps the most significant development in terms of pedestrian safety, however, is the burgeoning number of electric bikes (e-bikes) and scooters now in use. This is typically the first transportation upgrade for families who now enjoy a better income and quality of life. In 2012, the latest year for which I could find statistics, there were already more than two hundred million e-bikes in use in China and I’ll bet that number has doubled since. These vehicles are unregistered, unregulated, and require no special license even though they can easily travel fifty km/hour or faster. And being electric, they are essentially silent, so you can’t hear them coming. (In the US, by contract, only 53,000 e-bikes were sold in 2012.)
Most importantly, e-bikes and e-scooters are not forbidden from the bicycle/pedestrian lanes and virtually all of them ride there. Given that some bicycle/pedestrian lanes can be less than two meters across, and not all riders give an advance warning of their approach with a bell or buzzer, this can make for a harrowing walking experience, particularly since some e-bike and e-scooter riders don’t even slow down when they pass.
In the US, 2% of all traffic fatalities involve a car hitting a cyclist, while bicycles only account for 1% of all trips taken. Fully one-third of all cycling accidents involve an automobile.
In fact, pedestrians have the legal right of way over all automobiles, e-bikes, and e-scooters in China. I am the only person in China, however, who knows about that law. If you travel here, therefore, assume that you, as a pedestrian, are invisible to everyone else.
Cars, e-bikes, and e-scooters certainly provide a great deal of convenience. And they greatly increase the area in which it is practical to look for work. (Not to mention that they allow you to arrive at work without being covered in sweat.) In no way, therefore, do I suggest any attempt to restrict their growth.
But for every yin there is a yang and often we don’t foresee it ahead of time. Development and transportation is no different. As China steps onto the world stage, now boasting the second largest economy in the world, it will generate a better quality of life for its citizens. It will also inherit, however, a number of the unfortunate by-products of modernization.