If there’s one thing I’d like to change about Shenzhen, it’s having the right of way on sidewalks and the sense of safety that I can be a pedestrian without getting run over. Sadly, the sidewalks are frequently populated with as many cars and motorcycles and bicycles as the road is, and going in both directions. If it weren’t for the busses, I’d consider just walking on the street.
The motorcycles and electric bicycles act like it’s their special place, too, and will honk at everything in their way to let people know that they are coming through. The electric bicycles especially because they are otherwise silent and must make their presence known, sneaking up behind pedestrians and then blasting them with their horn.
In order to understand the problem, it’s necessary to understand the structure of a city block in Shenzhen. There is typically a large space, maybe 50 feet or more, between the street and the buildings. This space is tiled, and there is usually some kind of fence or barrier between the sidewalk and the road. The space is mixed-purpose. Often parts of it will serve as a parking lot, with attendants at the corners of the block to handle payment and allow vehicles in. Here is an example of a typical sidewalk.
As you can see, it gets crowded, and the pedestrians often have to squeeze around the cars on the sidewalk. Cars are usually impatient, too, and honk at pedestrians who aren’t walking fast enough.
Somehow the cars are almost excusable, though. They are only there to park, and arguably they’re in a parking lot. It gets annoying when the bikes are involved. To be clear, these are not the bikes you see in the states. These are almost all electric. Some of them are hybrid bicycles, but most are electric bicycles. They essentially have the run of the city, going everywhere they want and breaking every rule. When they are on the streets, they zip through red lights, make turns from the far lanes across traffic, split lanes to pass cars, and honk incessantly. When they are on the sidewalks, they weave in and out of pedestrians, honking incessantly to announce their presence and insist that you get out of their way.
They are impatient and unruly and will come up from behind and slice by you. The picture above doesn’t do the crowdedness or the loudness or the self-righteousness justice, but here are a couple more photos to show what it’s like.
The frustration of these bicycles is compounded by the fact that there is an entire industry around short transportation via these bicycles. At any corner or subway station is a group of guys emphatically insisting that you hop on the back of their vehicle. If you’re carrying a bag, they practically throw you on their bicycle. For 5 or 10 yuan ($1-1.50) they’ll take you anywhere within a few blocks, and because they’re hired, they’re important, and will honk at anyone within earshot to let them know they’re on important business and you need to get out of their way. Sometimes if they don’t have a fare, they’ll ride slowly down the sidewalk or street, honking at anyone they see to invite them to take a ride.
In the interest of this blog (and to save myself a 30 minute hike), I took one of these bikes, but I didn’t want to contribute to the problem, so I made sure that when I did it I was taking a route that was entirely on the road and didn’t have any sidewalk travel. It was both exciting and death-defying as we dodged cars, explored potholes to the full extent of the shocks, and got into the far right lane so that when we turned left at the intersection and ran the red light we would have to avoid the maximum number of cars and buses.
With the danger of crosswalks, the danger of sidewalks, and the constant annoyance of people honking for no reason, I’m tired and considering ways to fight back. I’ve started ignoring all honking from behind me. If they want to get around, that’s on them. If a particularly annoying honker tries to pass, I’ve been restraining myself from sticking out an arm to clothesline, but my restraint is waning. What I’m most excited about, though, is finding an air horn to carry with me. If I get honked at, I’ll honk back, and it will be loud and and they will know they made me mad.
Ultimately, though, there’s nothing I can do to change the culture, so I just have to be extremely vigilant about all traffic every time I step out of the apartment. I’ve even seen people riding bikes in the subway; there’s nowhere that’s safe.