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Reflections on Beijing traffic

When I first visited Beijing in 2001 with David and our kids, then 12 and 15, we stayed in a hotel on a main road not far from Tianamen Square. One of things that impressed us most was the flow of traffic. David’s an anthropolgist and I study community, and we were quite happy on long taxi rides just watching the way trucks, cars, bicyclists, bicycle and hand-drawn and motorized carts, and pedestrians interacted on the roads. We agreed that the surprising harmony of this wild scene reflected the dynamics of Chinese society.

This time the traffic is much worse, because of the surge in private car ownership, but otherwise it’s much the same. A middle-aged woman sits, facing back with her knees up, gazing calmly at the people behind her, in a rusty cart attached to her husband’s bicycle. Two girls on a bike, the cyclist picking her way through a junction packed with stop and start traffic, the girl on the back perched on a wire bike rack. This is what impresses me: the riders simply hop sideways and sit on the bare rack, crossing their feet and lifting them away from the back wheel. They don’t hold on in any way, and if the bike is moving too slowly for the rider to maintain balance, they hop off and walk along side, hopping back on once there’s a clear space. It couldn’t be more casual–no helmets, no special shoes, hands in lap or holding a bag.

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