Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fuelling the Fires of Industry

The second of a short series of posts about day to day life in Southern China.

The miracle of economic growth that has blessed China in the last decade, has left a population rapidly trying to catch up with the rate of change. Agricultural villages in the Shenzhen, Dong Guan, Guang Zhou "Triangle", have expanded into bustling industrial towns in the matter of just a few years. Farm fields sold off to developers to produce industrial zones of identical factories and tracts of urban housing apartment blocks.

The rate of growth can probably be likened to that of the London boroughs during the 1830s in our own Industrial revolution - just on a much larger scale.

Modern factories compete with simple workshops - often located in the main street. It is common for the various traders to group together - for example, one Sunday morning in Chang An, I passed about 20 shopfronts all of which specialised in stainless steel wire and pipe.

The photo at the top shows a metal fabrication workshop in Chang An. Steel stock is piled up in the street and cut into the necessary profiles with simple jigs and gas cutting torches. Here a worker is cutting circles from heavy gauge steel plate.

Amongst this new urban chaos, live the bemused population, - factory workers, shop keepers, handymen, porters and the recyclers of which I spoke last time. The three cities named above are home to nearly 35 million. Equivalent to half the population of the UK, shoe-horned into an area less than the size of the southern Home Counties.

Keeping this population moving are a series of modern dual carriageway roads and 3 to 4 lane expressways. Competing on these roads are a mix of trucks, buses, vans, cars, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, electric scooters/mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians - in roughly that pecking order.

To the uninitiated Westerner, the road traffic looks like total chaos, ungoverned by any rules or regulations. However, somehow, the system seems to work in a way that would seem impossible in the UK.

To understand the system, you have to discover a few things the hard way - if you survive the first time you cross a pedestrian crossing - you have cleared the first Darwinian hurdle. So here are the 3 things you need to know - "Three Steps to (avoid) Heaven".

First of all, there is no concept of "right of way". Most drivers will cut across the path of oncoming vehicles, loosely based on the pecking order above, and a quick decision on the size, speed and braking capability of the oncoming vehicle. It seems perfectly normal for a car to turn left across an on coming stream of motorcycles and electric mopeds, expecting them to slow down, stop or change their direction.

Secondly, road markings, such as centre-lines, double centre lines, stop lines and zebra crossings mean little if anything to the average road user. If your lane is blocked - then use the other carriageway, even though it might involve playing "chicken" across the centreline (or double centreline) with the oncoming traffic. If they are "just" bikes and scooters, they will probably part out of the way, if they are bigger than you, just barge in front of the obstruction you just overtook, and carve them up. My driver has scared me on many occasion by first overtaking and then carving up a 40-tonner with a fully laden shipping container on the back!

Thirdly, blowing the horn at every second vehicle appears to be mandatory, whenever other road users come in your way. Chinese cars should be designed with no indicators - totally redundant - but an extra horn or two controlled off the redundant indicator stalk.

Horns are used in advance to warn other slower road users or pedestrians that you have either no intention of stopping (see concrete trucks - below), so they should get out of your way, or as an indication to other slow road users that they are in your way and should change lanes or yield. There is no lane discipline, so you will commonly find a poor soul on a pedal-trike, or auto-rickshaw, holding up a queue of traffic in the outside lane of a 2-lane street. No problem, just undertake on the inside, comandeer the opposite carriageway or even the pavement if it looks easier - just keep moving, by whatever means possible.

The worst offenders are concrete trucks - the revolving type. Time, tide and setting concrete waits for no man - and the drivers of these trucks drive to the max, often with the horn on at all times - especially if there may be bikes or people crossing the road that might get in the way of them.

Pedestrian crossings are widely ignored. If you are a pedestrian on a zebra crossing, you often have to dodge oncoming vehicles or freeze like a bunny in the headlights as buses and trucks pass you on each side. Light controlled pedestrian crossings are almost as bad. Even if the green man is illuminated, there will be someone jumping the lights, sneaking a right turn on red, and generally trying to wipe you out.

One way steets are generally ignored - it is common to have to avoid oncoming traffic driving the wrong way on the slip road to the dual carrigeways. Exiting a carriageway on the "on ramp" is a common dodge if it will save you a few seconds - regardless of what happens when you come into conflict with those trying to get onto the carriageway. Even the buses and 40 tonners do this!

At night, the perils are a bit greater. Electric bikes are virtually silent and few use their lights after dark - a way of extending the range. Car drivers often drive without lights, use of lights and windscreen wipers appears to be arbitrary.

Even on the pavement, the pedestrian will still encounter road users. Cars will drive on the pavement if the road ahead is blocked. Bikes, trikes and e-bikes will sneak up on you on the pavement and then expect you to yield.

Most residents in the industrial towns are young and inexperienced of road traffic. Factory workers from rural towns flock to the urban areas and have little or no traffic awareness. Just by looking at oncoming traffic when they blindly stroll across the road would be a good starting point. Many are oblivious to oncoming traffic until they hear the blast of the horn. As darkness falls at 7:30 in this lattitude - workers exiting from an evening shift, at the end of a 13 hour day are generally oblivious to the container trucks that thunder through the industrial zones.

China still has a relatively low traffic density, which is probably the only reason that it can move in this manner. If car and vehicle ownership is to rise, then it must be followed with a roadsense awareness campaign - starting in primary school. Only then will they manage to increase their vehicle numbers and keep it flowing - and slowly move to a system like the West, based on discipline, rules and awareness of other road users. Currently you have to drive here in a manner that assumes that there will be a stationary object around the next bend - or at least expect a vehicle of any size or type to inexplicedly cross your path without notice.

Seatbelts are seldom fitted to cars. Taxis fold away the buckles under the back seats so that they cannot be fastened.

Youngsters are rapidly becoming more mobile with the introduction of affordable electric mopeds. It is common to see a lad riding, with his girlfriend riding side saddle on the back. "Three-up" on a scooter is not uncommon, and I once saw a family of 4 conveyed on one - oblivious to the danger that their children might be in, should they be struck by another vehicle. The other day, I saw a young mother riding a moped, with a toddler, squeezed between her knees, riding on the "footplate" at the bottom of the battery housing. He was unable to hold on, but just gripped between his mothers legs.

Every day one witnesses the bizarre, the foolhardy and the downright dangerous, but somehow the system works, and there does not appear to be a huge amount of carnage on the roads, ambulances or wrecked vehicles littering the highway.

To those of us that have learned our driving skills in the West, the traffic conditions here are alien at best. Who knows what our very own Health and Safety Inspectorate would make of it - perhaps they would become deeply traumatised, realising that they were powerless to change the ways of the population here. Perhaps we could wholesale export the HSE and all their minions to China?

Next time I will cover food, eating out, and coping with other unpredictabilities brought on when living in this quaintly crazy place!

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