Brian's Blogs

Beijing's transportation is getting its act together

It would be nice to think that a column I wrote in November had spurred the Chinese authorities into action over the abysmal standard of driving in the capital; although even I am not that big headed enough to believe I have that big a following! But it is both heartening to see that someone, somewhere is taking the problem of selfish driving seriously; and predictable that there has been such a backlash on the blogosphere against the new regulations that came into force on January 1st.

According to the newly-revised traffic rules, those who ignore yellow lights, which warn drivers to slow down before the light turns red, should receive penalties and fines. Penalties for traffic light violations doubled to six points on the 12-point scale for losing a license. If your vehicle is already partly over the line when the light changes from green to yellow, you may continue. Some other common violations, such as speeding, making phone calls while driving, and drinking and driving, will also result in heavier penalties.

In a comment that has been forwarded more than 23,000 times, one driver complained on Weibo that he had smashed into the back of a car that had suddenly stopped for a yellow light – to which I would ask why was he driving so close to the car in front in the first place? "Tailgating", as this practice is called in Europe, is itself dealt with by harsh penalties over there. So, though I am sorry for the owner of the car in front, I can only hope that this outraged driver has learned a good lesson.

Some drivers are complaining that the new rules run contrary to the laws of physics, as vehicles travelling at normal speeds cannot stop within seconds of seeing a yellow light. And again, I would argue that they are totally missing the point. You don't drive full speed across junctions, assuming that you have a clear right of way. A good driver automatically slows down to allow for the unexpected – be it a child crossing the road, or someone else driving across your path or whatever. This practice of Beijing's drivers intending to plough through whatever or whomever is in their way needs to be stopped; and I applaud the authorities for bringing in these new laws.

Apparently more than 68,000 road accidents, resulting in 794 deaths, occurred in China during the National Day holiday last September / October, according to the Ministry of Public Security. And already the authorities are claiming that there have been fewer accidents since these new rules were introduced. Now, what I would urge, is that the police should start doing their job properly and not sit back watching the normal everyday bad driving that is so common, at least on the streets of Beijing. A few well publicized fines for bad driving and stories of drivers losing their licenses would soon improve the standard of driving immeasurably, in my opinion.

Not that those drivers living in Beijing and losing their licenses need to worry that much – especially since the recent introduction of new subway lines and stations at the end of December. The Beijing Subway now boasts 221 stations and 442 km of track, including the new Line 6, which connects the east and west of the capital, running parallel to Line 1; an extension to Line 10, which will eventually form the capital's second loop line once finished; an extension to Line 8, which connects the city center and northern suburbs; and an extension to Line 9 to Beijing West Railway Station.

Though the Beijing Subway is the busiest on the Chinese mainland in terms of passenger volume, and the largest in terms of operational length, it still has some way to go, with 30 lines and some 450 stations earmarked for completion by 2020. Currently, the city's subway system is under considerable pressure, with serious overcrowding during rush hours. (The city's public transport system apparently carried a daily average of 20.6 million passengers during the past year.)

Though the transport planners are to be congratulated on the new extensions to the subway system, the phrase "to spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar" – the practice of spoiling something by trying to make small economies – readily comes to mind.

For instance, the new line 10 extension required new maps to be printed and installed. I wonder who was responsible for "Airpot Express" to be printed, only for a sticker saying "Airport Express" to then have to be stuck over the offending mistake. With some 45 stations, each with two platforms, each with some 20 maps all having to be corrected, such acts of unprofessionalism and carelessness must have cost time, money and effort.

Even worse is the design of the line 10 platform maps which are different depending on whether you are travelling clockwise or counter-clockwise. With so many stations, it is bad enough having to locate your chosen destination on the map, without then having to find it again in a different place on your return journey … not that either of these two maps bear any relation whatsoever to the maps inside the trains which are practically impossible to read unless one is immediately underneath them. 2/10 for effort in this regard I fear!

The new Line 6 also advises passengers at each platform door to keep away "when the gate skids" – a "Chinglish" notice that is bound to get foreign visitors to the capital reaching for their cameras; while another notice at Dongsi station – where the new Line 6 is located 34 meters underground – hasn't (yet) got its escalators working, forcing interchange passengers to walk up or down 120 steps. Here a notice advises passengers "Equipment debugging A moratorium on the use of".

Don't you think that an organization spending millions – perhaps billions – on a new facility might deign to fork out just a small handful of quai to get someone to check their translated notices?

But then, I guess, one of the charms of living in China is the touching faith that the Chinese have in using the likes of Google Translate when they create new signs, and the wonderful examples of Chinglish that are created as a result.

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