Letters

Don't look to China for a traffic role model. Readers respond to Linda Baker's "Why Don't We Do It in the Road."


Salon Staff
May 24, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

During the 2003 blackout, I had the opportunity to drive my motorcycle through the streets of New York City. I was amazed by the cooperative behavior exhibited at the intersections; pedestrians negotiated with motor vehicles to pass comfortably through.

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I felt that the communal feeling was different from ordinary NYC life, and I attributed it to the shared traumatic experience of Sept. 11, 2001.

Maybe I was wrong; maybe it was simply the natural outgrowth of lawlessness.

-- Gregory W. Field

While I agree with the ideas in Linda Baker's article, first someone needs to teach Americans how to drive! How do we get the typical SUV driver who's on the phone and completely oblivious to all going on around them, to start to think about others? How to change the "might makes right" (SUV drivers who figure everyone else needs to look out for the biggest thing on the road) and lawsuit-happy mentality that's currently in place?

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-- Katya Strinka

Based on the article summary and beginning, I was at first a bit skeptical about the premise that removing traffic controls would be a good thing. In fact, the proposals mentioned in the article are not about the anarchy of China, but about influencing the behavior of drivers through clever street design. The author seems to have confused some issues. At one point, she talks about removing speed limits, while at another she extols the virtues of a 30km/h limit and the mixing of street uses.

We may have some things to learn from China, but you do alternative transport activists a disservice by comparing the very orderly "anarchy" of German, Dutch or Danish mixed-use streets with the chaos of Chinese cities. I'm afraid many people will come away from the article doubtful about these proposals because the main image in their mind will be of the chaotic Chinese streets. The point is not to throw everybody into the streets without any rules at all, but to return the streets to whom they really belong -- the people.

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-- Stephan von Pohl

I spent five weeks in China and saw two people hit in streets like Baker describes. I have never seen that in Japan or America, where I have lived much longer.

Furthermore, the whole point of a car is to get somewhere more quickly than one could walking. If the street is full of people, this purpose is defeated. Good for the environment, yes, but see how people feel about spending all day on their feet doing what used to take them 30 minutes.

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Traffic laws exist not to save children playing from being splattered across the highways and byways, but to facilitate quick and orderly travel.

-- Aaron Batty

I'm glad Linda Baker enjoyed her time in Suzhou and the chaos of traffic there, but if she thinks that such a situation would be an improvement over American conventional wisdom because it would force motorists to be "restrained," she needs to think again. During my time studying Mandarin in China, I also never saw a serious accident -- but it wasn't for lack of trying. I spent trips too numerous to count in taxis that whirred just inches away from elderly pedestrians at 80km/h, or braked just before reaching them. I saw people on bicycles sideswiped, while passers-by simply kept on going, and when I asked I was told that it was a "common occurrence." I saw much the same kind of chaos in urban Mexico, where the locals actually accelerate before speedbumps so they can keep their momentum.

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There are many positive aspects I will take from my journeys abroad, but the traffic system is not one of them. I am perfectly willing to try a different approach to our traffic problems in America, but emulating these countries is not a road we should be riding.

-- Thomas Wilburn

Linda Baker closed her article on traffic planning with the sentence, "The absence of traffic controls means that people are out for themselves; the trick is, they have to look out for everyone else as well."

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This is far too tricky for U.S. drivers. In China, a car is a major investment. In Japan, almost all the roads are mixed use because there isn't enough space. In Barcelona the same applies. I've lived all these places, and ridden bicycles and motorcycles exclusively. When I return every summer to the U.S., I always drive a car. With teens and octogenarians driving cheap cars with cheap gas, you have to be defensive (look left, right, left again) to avoid getting mowed down. Lack of alternative transportation leaves us a nation of selfish, aggressive drivers. I'll continue to ride my bike the eight miles to work each day in Tokyo, happy to know that it costs each driver $3,000 and 10 weeks of driving school to get a license.

-- Kevin Ryan

The author didn't need to travel to China to notice this; she could have stayed in Manhattan. Seriously. As a native Angeleno, I tried driving here with the orderly L.A. mantra, "Thou shalt not impede the flow of traffic." Didn't work. Once I embraced the zany chaos of Manhattan drivers, I was fine. Now I drive like a cabbie and enjoy city driving as much as ever. And I have never hit nor been hit in the many years I've lived here.

-- Issai Chizen

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Did Linda Baker actually talk to any traffic engineers for more than the 10 seconds she quotes?

I am not a traffic engineer, but it didn't take me much longer than that to see the problem with bringing second-generation traffic management to the U.S., and it's got nothing to do with "individualism" or "communal sensibility."

The model is predicated on crowds. Drive around Portland at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday and imagine if all the signal lights were removed. The first sign that 70 mph was too fast would be the pedestrian wrapped around your axle.

-- Matt Segur

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The logic of fewer rules and less enforcement by outside authority resulting in better overall behavior makes a lot of sense to me as a former Ultimate Frisbee player.

I've been away from the sport for a number of years, but when I was playing, there were no referees, even at the national and international championship level: all decisions, from fouls to in/out-of-bound calls, were made on the field by the players directly involved in the play. There were arguments and disagreements, and occasional abuse of the system, but generally, the result was fair play and respect for the other players.

After I left college, I played club soccer briefly, and was unpleasantly surprised at the change in attitude caused by simply placing a referee or two on the field. Spitting, shirt-grabbing, vicious tackling and various unpleasantries became the norm. The emphasis was no longer on the flow of the game, but what you could get away with when the ref wasn't looking.

Similarly road signs and rule-heavy current intersection design relieve drivers and pedestrians alike of their responsibility to behave safely and civilly on the road -- and encourage people to "get away with" whatever they can because they have the right-of-way according to the road markings.

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Behavioral philosophy aside, this sort of thing will go absolutely nowhere in the U.S. Not because of the merits of the system, mind you. It will be because:

1) It takes a huge amount of power out of the hands of the ever-growing group of uniformed and non-uniformed control freaks who currently maintain and patrol our transportation system.

2) What will local governments do without all that revenue from said uniformed control freaks writing expensive tickets for bullshit traffic violations?

-- Cameron Crotty

Just like the butterkeeper in the refrigerator in the house (hot box in a cold box in a hot box, each one drawing electricity), in America we have straight, efficient, high-speed streets and alleyways, interrupted by big, stupid looking speed bumps to slow the cars down.

I have often thought that speed bumps were tacky and far less elegant than the way they do things in Europe, and now I understand it a little bit better. Don't use speed bumps, instead rearrange the parking spaces by the side of a road so that it's not a straight drive-through. Put a tree or an island in the middle of the street. Make crosswalks out of cobblestone and raise it up a little bit for a dual-purpose device. Or make the whole street in cobblestone and control how fast people drive by choosing how rough a surface you make it.

Leave the fast traffic for the main streets.

-- Allan Bonadio

Linda Baker was fortunate enough not to witness any traffic accidents during her trip to China. However, this does not change the fact that China has the world's highest death toll and death rate for traffic accidents (Shanghai Star, "Road accidents kill 300 a day in China," 4/12/04). Despite having fewer cars than Western nations, China's death rate is eight times that of America's and growing rapidly. Given this, I am reluctant to adopt China's traffic laws -- or rather, lack of them.

-- David Schaich

As an American expatriate in China, I found Linda Baker's article on shared-space traffic design to be quite an eye-opener. I take to the road on my bicycle (no car for this U.S.-trained driver; it's still a little too terrifying), navigating past public buses, taxis, SUVs, horse carts, bicycles, and street markets filling the bike lanes. Driving and cycling in town is nerve-racking at best, and I have a hard time seeing how altruism affects anyone's driving habits (including my own). As Ms. Baker stated, people do look after themselves, but I always assumed we were blithely disregarding the other vehicles and people sharing the road, as that's how everyone seems to drive. I am quite pleased to find that there is, in fact, order to what for eight years I thought was chaos. So, no more guilt as I weave past, squeeze by and cut off dump trucks and little old ladies alike -- I'll just chalk it up to "communal sensibility."

-- Alison Lytton


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