Cars and driving in China

(One more China post and I'm done. I promise.) China's rapid changes in infrastructure, employment, and standard of living have led to an interesting assortment of cars on the road and driving behaviors. For the most part, Jalopniks would feel at home in China.

Driving is an active, primary task there. They haven't had time to start taking it for granted. They all drive stick shifts, and they don't talk on the phone. On the other hand, they don't drive for fun, or to see and be seen. They don't hoon. Unanimously they hate traffic. But they confront this necessary evil rather than trying to insulate themselves from it.

Westerners are often alarmed by the Chinese habit of driving down the wrong side of the road whenever it happens to be empty. (I know I giggled like a toddler on a rollercoaster my first several taxi rides there.) In the States, the double yellow line is strictly enforced, the penalties for crossing it are severe, and anyway people would look at you like you were juggling sticks of dynamite. Seen another way, a major US city's clogged inbound arteries every morning standing alongside its empty outbound lanes could be regarded as a brian-dead waste of resources. The best we ever do to correct this is to have "flex lanes" that can be swapped mid-day. The Chinese utilize their roads to the fullest. The converse of "defensive driving" might be called "opportunistic driving" and the Chinese practice both.

And the vehicles? First of all, there are genuine jalopies. The most stunning are the 2-part farm tractors converted for road use. They're hinged in the middle, making them look like genetically deformed Mad Max props. But also the pedicabs, and the scooter version that looks like a doghouse on a bicycle-wheeled sidecar.

There's a stunning variety of cars, mostly small to what we'd call medium sized. An even more stunning variety of sub-car transport: three wheels or two, motor or no. A lot of modifications and improvisation keeps these subcars on the road. There's not too much cosmetic damage on the cars, but the work trucks all look like hell. They're a lot older than the cars. There are no old cars in China for the same reason that Columbus didn't meet any white people in America.

Large and conspicuously expensive cars glide through the tumult. I saw a Bentley in Shenzhen. I saw quite a few BWM 7-series in Quanzhou. I note that BMW, Merc, and Audi all sell cars here with smaller engines than elsewhere. 730Li? S320? A8L 2.0T? Speed is not a realistic possibility there anyway.

It occurred to me that roundabouts (traffic circles) would work very well in China. They're already negotiating their position on the road all the time, anyway. Maybe that's why Americans can't get the hang of traffic circles: we take our position on the road for granted and we've stopped negotiating with each other.