Cross. But Don’t Die

Beijing Traffic

Beijing traffic is the worst in the world. So determined an IBM survey last year. Beijing scored 99 out of 100 in IBM’s commuter pain index, and traffic in Beijing was nearly five times worse than that of Los Angeles, the worst traffic city of all US cities, scoring 25. Ran Etya shares his experience of crossing the streets in the most congested city in the world

The Lord of the Ring Roads.

Here I am again, about to cross a main street in Beijing. No overpasses, no underpasses, not even the virtually useless walk/don’t walk lights. It’s just me, the crosswalk, and the drivers. Horn happy, itchy fingers, Beijing drivers don’t have much patience. I once tried to count to ten without being interrupted by the sound of the honk. I made it to eight. I can see it in their eyes. Once they notice me, the laowai, they are in Defcon1 all of the sudden. They know that I am not one of the locals – a broken-spirited pedestrian. They know that I might let my mind run wild and mistake the crosswalk for a place where drivers yield to pedestrians. And so it begins. Like every young male since the dawn of time, I too must face the “right” of passage, but since it’s the 21st Century women too must cross the threshold.

The vital question: who will slow down first? One second, that’s all I need. One second of hesitation from them, and I am in. Alas, not today. Today’s drivers are jaded, hardened. They know that yielding to one pedestrian means yielding to the tens of thousands that will follow. Most cannot afford to pay that price. So they accelerate before I can make my move and now I must wait.


It’s a busy morning and after a short while I see an entire army of people by my side. Infantry and bicycle cavalry just waiting for someone to assume command, but they are all too afraid. Only someone who grew up outside the system can take charge. My destiny calls. ”Wei” I answer the call and step forward while trying to adapt the hands-down-best-war-speech I have ever heard to the current situation:

Arise! Arise pedestrians of Beijing! Laptops shall be shaken! Suitcases shall be splintered! Cross now! Cross to other side! Cross for ruin and world’s ending!  Ere the sun pierces the smog! Death! Death! Deeeeeeaaath!

“DEATH”! They answer in one great voice and thrust their umbrellas forward. It seems that my speech, though spoken in English, is working.

“You” I turn to one of the more authoritative looking men. “Lose the cigarette and take this company left! Block any vehicle that tries to come through the interchange”.

“You” I turn to a bunch of young women waiting on their bicycles. “Take the cavalry right and flank the enemy after you pass the bus stop. Forth! And fear no darkness”

“Form lines” I say to those who remain and start swinging my umbrella in the chilly morning air. Then I run along my front line and let my umbrella clash with theirs’ for luck. “Charge” I shout, and point forward. Like a great tide we wash through the intersection. For a while battle is going well and victory seems to be at hand. But then, all of a sudden great horns can be heard in the distance. “Oh no” cries out one of my trusty soldiers, “It’s the semi-trailers of the uncharted lands south of the fifth ring road”. “We are doomed” they scream in horror.

A loud spitting noise brings me back to my senses. There is no war. But with more cars, drivers and foreign pedestrians flooding this city who knows what will happen. Beijing cars don’t suffer pedestrians to pass. Foreigners however, are accustomed to traffic regulations such as crossing when the light is green (how crazy..). Who knows, perhaps my Beijing Traffic Battles will spare countless future lives, squeezing respect from the pedestrian-scornful drivers.