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Andrea Hsu

Crosswalks of Chengdu

My jaywalking habits have definitely intensified since I arrived in Chengdu.

I don't know what it is about China and jaywalking. Perhaps it's the complete absence of right-of-way for pedestrians (so why try to cross safely anyway.) Perhaps it's the safety-in-numbers mentality (cross when the jaywalker next to you is crossing). Or perhaps, it's intersections like one I stumbled across today.

Chengdu city map

The intersection of Shuncheng, East Datong and Zhengfu Streets. hide caption

toggle caption

This is the intersection of Shuncheng, East Datong, and Zhengfu Streets in north-central Chengdu. Looks pretty normal on the map, but here's what it's like in person:

Chengdu intersection

T-shaped crosswalk configuration defies logic.....

Chengdu intersection
......but it seems to faze no one.

It took me a moment to figure out why people were walking in the middle of the road. But look closely. In fact, these people are all following the crosswalks, to the "T." Literally. But no one seemed to be bother by this crosswalk configuration. There was no honking, no screeching of tires, I, on the other hand, was fascinated, and couldn't stop taking pictures. -- Andrea Hsu  Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR



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Man, the place where you took that picture is near my home. And I can't stop laughing when I see this entry.

We do obey the traffic lights when there's a traffic jam. But we don't always bother with the lights. We just cross the road when it's safe.

Sent by Song Qiuying | 1:04 PM | 4-29-2008

Another explanation might be how East Asians think in a quite different way than Westerners. Chinese, like other Easterners, seem better at putting themselves into others' shoes or "guessing" intentions from others' subtle gestures, which are essential to avoid conflicts in a social interaction, like crossing a road.

Cognitive difference might also be the reason why so many "why"s pop up when a Westerner experiences an Eastern culture, and vise versa.

(More in "The Geography of thought", R. Nisbett. )

Sent by Nick | 5:17 PM | 4-29-2008

This entry would be more interesting if there were a comparison between the US and China regarding traffic accidents and fatal collisons.

To me, as well as most Chinese people, we cling to the notion that jaywalking is safe. Everyone takes care of themselves. But I'm not sure of this until I see a statistical comparison.

Finally, for a nation that's not fully enlightened by modern moral and ethic regulations, I believe it's not the only significant phenomenon that could make you aghast. Just keep walking around our streets, and you'll surely find more.

Sent by Wecan Wong | 9:40 PM | 4-29-2008

I noticed when I was in Beijing that the traffic lights appear to be "suggestions of behavior" while the crosswalks are street decorations. I tried to cross with a large group of Chinese people so I would have company in the hospital.

Sent by Myron Palay | 10:24 PM | 4-29-2008

I have visited a number of cities in China over the last few years, including Chengdu in Decemeber. I am amazed at the interaction between pedestrians and the vehicles of all types. I once got stuck at a large cross walk similar to this. I was afraid to cross. Fortunately, a grade school had just let out and I just followed a small group of children when they crossed. We said "hello" back and forth as we walked. This kept my mind off the vehicles that passed inches from us and they got to practice English.

Sent by Steve M | 12:30 AM | 4-30-2008

I have been living in China for 2 years now after coming from Tokyo, which is the polar opposite when it comes to obeying traffic laws.. My motto is: "China, where a red light is just a suggestion." Chengdu taxis have been the most hair-raising thus far.

Sent by bill | 4:38 AM | 4-30-2008

What do you mean pedestrians don't have rights?

Pedestrian rights are so strong that they CAN walk anywhere they like. In China (Chengdu) it goes by size - people are smallest. Even if one of them hits you on your bike or in your car, it is your fault. Try checking out the laws before you say they have no rights. It is the supreme right of the pedestrian in China that encourages such reckless behaviour.

Sent by Anonymous | 4:41 AM | 4-30-2008

To Wecan Wong,

I don't think "most Chinese people cling to the notion that jaywalking is safe." The understanding is superficial. My family hates jaywalking and we are afraid of busy roads. But sometimes we will take a chance to saving time.

The key word is "lucky;" jaywalking people consider themselves lucky and think they will never be a victim of a traffic accident.

Sent by moss | 11:43 AM | 4-30-2008

While there's a lot of jaywalking in Chengdu, it never seemed as dangerous as when I do it back in the States. The roads in China are more congested than in the US, so they move at a slower pace. Also, each driver is responsible only for what is directly in front of him or her. If everyone obeys this rule, it seems to increase road safety between motorists, bikers, and pedestrians.

Sent by Phil | 2:06 PM | 4-30-2008

To Phil,

I partly agree with you.

Pedestrian psycological feelings in commercial street is totally different from in busy highway.

In Chengdu, traffic dept. strictly enforce rules and laws on cars, and most city roads limit speed below 40km/h.
Although, every day many traffic accident occur in Chengdu, safety awareness is still lacking.

Sent by moss | 10:38 PM | 4-30-2008

There are just so many pedestrians in China. Thanks to their wisdom they know how to survive in such an environment. And I do agree that "It is the supreme right of the pedestrian in China that encourages such reckless behaviour."

Sent by yang | 1:33 AM | 5-1-2008

Anonymous writes:

Try checking out the laws before you say they have no rights. It is the supreme right of the pedestrian in China that encourages such reckless behaviour.

What are the laws? I'd heard that pedestrians are to blame if they hit a car when they're someplace they're not supposed to be. But, I don't really know the laws.

More importantly, I don't know what actually happens in China when there's a collision between a jaywalker and a vehicle. Does anyone have stories?

I started out being terrified when crossing streets in Shanghai; now I'm not. I've never seen an accident.

Sent by John Baez | 1:06 PM | 5-1-2008

I was scared to death crossing St. in Chengdu for the first few times after living in the US for many years. Now I am more like a local. But there is no way I can possibly drive in any of China's big cities like Chengdu.

Private car ownership is only popular in the last few years and Chengdu happens to be the city in China with the 3rd highest rate of private car ownership. Most drivers on the roads have less than a few years of driving history.

Driving in China is like sharing a congested road with thousands of teenage drivers in the US...

I suggest you do a special on private car ownership in China. Chengdu is a perfect place to do it. There is already a very vibrant car culture here with lots of car clubs featuring either fans of certain make or haters of certain model or people frequently drive certain routes... Chengdu International Auto Show is known to be one of the major auto shows in China no manufacturer can afford to miss and is used as a guage for China's western inland market.

Chengdu adds at least 100 cars onto its roads every day and it's already more than 1 million! How this is affecting the environment, economy, and life style? My recent trip to the local DMV would be an eye-opening experience for any Americans.

You can't imagine how serious and how hi-tech they are about car ownership. All car registration has to go through not only a complete safety inspection and emission test (only cars meets Euro-III can be allowed into the city (within the 3rd ring road), a car is also linked to the owner by FINGERPRINT. The funniest part is the way to pick one's license plate. With Chinese people's obsession in "lucky numbers" and auctioning out lucky numbers have been banned due to citizen outrage, they came up with a very high-tech solution to give EVERY car owner a fair chance to pick a lucky number...Well, you have to see how it's done to believe it.

Sent by Dan | 3:06 PM | 5-1-2008

The lack of awareness of traffic safety rules is a widespread phenomenon in China.

I used to live in Guangzhou and it was even worse. When I try to rent an apartment, one main consideration was to minimize the number of times that I have to cross the busy road. The sadist part is that my father died in a senseless accident that involved a new driver on road.

The status of traffic in China is a manifestation of the status of the rule of law. Laws are not made by people and there is generaly a dis-respect for the laws that can not be enforced by the police. (The number of law enforcement officers, ironically, is not enough.)

To build a civil society, people must change their bad habits and such change can only happen slowly. I find that basically, older folks just hang on to their bad habits forever and only the younger generation can be changed gradually provide that they have the right influence.

I generally think the promotion of traffic safety, orderly soceity and environmental awereness to younger generation are practical and worthy causes for building an eventually democratic and civil soceity. It is actually harder to make these changes then installing a democratic voting system. A democracy has to be run by orderly citizen who respect rules.

Otherwise, even if a free voting system is installed, people who runs the system will corrupt it, and turn it into strong man politics like in so many "democratic" third world countries.

The promotion of an orderly soceity will also meet less resistance from the controling party and should be easier within the current government control.

Sent by Wisher | 11:59 AM | 5-2-2008

My experience in Chengdu is that most cars follow the rules whereas people on bicycles and scooters do not. I don't jaywalk yet when I cross on a green light, I constantly need to avoid 2-wheeled vehicles.

Chengdu's taxi drivers scare me.

Sent by totochi | 3:07 PM | 5-2-2008

I have to say that most taxi-drivers are OK, at least inside the city.

I had a really scary experience when we had to catch an early morning flight last summer. That driver had been driving all night and was supposed to switch with another driver at 7am. He had to stop to fill up, but we didn't have have much time left.

He drove this cranking-all-the-way small car, flew down the highway and kept on talking to us. When none of us responded to him, he started talking to himself. I knew, per my experience as an ER doctor for number of years that he must have been on some kind of stimulant.

I didn't want to talk to him because I didn't want to further divert his attention. I was praying all the way to the airport and gave him 50 bucks for a trip that should have cost a fraction of that amount, and told him to keep the change.
(Normally, you don't have tip in Chengdu).

I was relieved and my mom and my 8-year-old got out and took a long breaths!

Sent by Beverly Peng | 10:51 PM | 5-2-2008

Seoul is the anti-Chengdu. I did not see a single jaywalker during my whole stay. They even queue up to board subway trains! The East Asians are definitely very different one group from another.

Sent by Joe | 11:04 PM | 5-2-2008