Friday, November 30, 2012

Lessons from Beijing traffic

A rare break in traffic across for Tiananmen Square
Walking to a meeting last night in Washington, D.C. I stopped and looked at the chaos that is D.C. downtown rush hour traffic. I realized this was the first time I had experienced this phenomenon after my Beijing trip earlier in the month (a Thanksgiving trip to New England had intervened). I was struck by how the big city traffic here differs from that in Beijing, and began to ponder what traffic can teach us about life - and communication.

In Beijing, the pedestrian has no right-of-way. Vehicles of every size occupy three to four lanes on each side, and there are bicycles and three-wheeled electronic delivery carts in the bike lanes. Traffic signals seem to mean something, but apparently turning on red is permissible for right and left turns. So pity the poor tourist on foot! The best advice I got about walking around town was from a wonderful guidebook, China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps. The authors said the best thing to do, since a stray bike or random cab can come out of nowhere, was to wait till a crowd gathers to cross the street and go with them. Even if you have the light, as a pedestrian you are vulnerable. Best to travel with a group. Fortunately, you are never far from a crowd in Beijing!

The other striking thing about Beijing traffic, though, is its quiet, almost dance-like flow. In a town with so many drivers that they can only use their cars on alternate days, and six ring roads defining the city, I was expecting to see NYC-style traffic jams, complete with horns blaring and breaks screeching. Nothing could have been farther from what I experienced. 

Beijing traffic flows smoothy. Drivers maintain a uniform pace (maxing out at 25 mph by my guesstimation). No one races to make a light, but plenty make u-turns mid-block (because so many streets are one-way). Those behind the wheel must be used to such things happening in front of them, but visiting passengers are quite unprepared! The first time I witnessed this (from inside a cab) I cringed and held on tight, expecting horns, maybe some loud cursing, definitely a jolt as the brakes were applied. But no, the turn was easily accomplished, and we were on our merry way.

It may be illustrative of what some call the "Chinese character" that drivers work so well, so harmoniously, in such a crowded place. Traffic is bad in Beijing, and I think the system of ring roads is pretty inefficient. But the drivers are all mindful of each other. They all seem to realize what so many of us forget: we are all fellow-travelers, and rushing about and behaving as if our needs trump everyone else's doesn't really help us reach our destinations that much sooner. They watch each other, engage mindfully, and go with the flow.

Lessons to remember the next time we find ourselves in a foreign communications landscape!

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