Chengdu Traffic Culture

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Chengdu, China

Chengdu Traffic Culture Reviews

WarrenRodwell WarrenRo…
50 reviews
Oct 09, 2007
Former American taxi driver Lou Conover has had to assimilate a new set of rules and conduct in so far as traffic culture is concerned. Being from a small town of only fifteen thousand makes it difficult to accept that Chengdu (with over ten million) has a reputation for being laid back. Instead, China’s fifth largest city projects an image of being big and busy with a lot of traffic and people moving around in amongst it. The painted lines on the roads seem to be like quaint little decorations that many motor vehicles ignore. As an engineer by career and a cabbie for five years, Lou tends to look at things in terms of flows and patterns, and how the flow is negotiated.

Chengdu vehicular movement is immensely interesting because it is starkly clear that the traffic works very well here. The reference to the lines as quaint decorations is not a criticism. If there were accidents on every corner every day, then there would obviously be something wrong. On the contrary, there are clues that this is a totally different system. The traffic is not so much regulated but negotiated. Every encounter of two moving objects in traffic is negotiated on a person to person basis. Whether the distance is one hundred yards or ten yards between us, we are already communicating. No matter what that next thing is, there is awareness and the transfer of intentions to each other.

Many foreigners that come to China, especially to live, get frustrated because they think there is not enough advance planning in their lives. Perhaps the kindest analogy to draw when comparing the public (government) and private (business) sectors is to think of the public sector as a big wheel. It can take a long time to turn, but when it does it covers much more ground than the faster spinning small wheels of private enterprise. Bearing in mind that the public sector is usually labour intensive, it could be reasonable to apply the same rationale to the continual movement and activities of a heavily populated nation. City traffic naturally gets more congested and chaotic during periods of peak usage.

Because Lou Conover has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and music, he often hears the notion that the two disciplines are supposed to go together. Lou subscribes to an alternative philosophy. There are separate parts of him expressed in the two different fields. He does not really see them connected, but when he looks at the traffic for instance, it is a really interesting cultural phenomenon because it is not like the western system. Sure, there are obvious surprises when motorists need to slam on their brakes, but that can be seen anywhere in the world. If each person knows what the other is going to do, then you can do anything you want as long as you both agree.

In simple terms, you can cross the line on the wrong side of the road, or even step in front of a moving bus. If the bus driver knows what you are going to do, it should all work out. This sounds like a synergy that does not prevail abroad. Hollywood movies and televised news have portrayed road rage as a component of contemporary America, but this is more of a big city phenomenon rather than a widespread national occurrence. What makes the whole car culture different in the United States is that virtually everyone has one. The responsible middle class, middle aged homeowner has an automobile, and so do the sixteen year old jerk and the cab driver. Different backgrounds are interacting.

In a place such as Chengdu where proportionately fewer have a car, the group that does is less diverse. There are no juvenile skites in control of steering wheels because they usually only own a bicycle or at best, an electric scooter. Otherwise, they are walking. Motorists and the public at large are not subjected to the arrogant behaviour of teenagers or twenty two year olds that think they are the greatest thing on earth with a four thousand pound piece of machinery. Another side of the equation is that Chinese tend to be more polite and less self-centered in that type of social situation. Driving is done mostly for practical conveyance purposes – getting from point A to point B.

The car as a status symbol can be used as a visible means to display wealth, costing as much as a modest home. Even in the People’s Republic, someone driving past in say a large black Audi is making a statement of importance, “I am a big man! I count!” The status mentality is involved, but it is not some hot young guy out cruising. Automobiles in the US are more colourful and from where Lou hails from in Massachusetts, there is a new concept of environmentally conscious status in hybrid cars. These half gas / half electric green vehicles are less polluting, quieter and smaller. They’re taking the place of the typical giant American SUV (sport utility vehicle), which is almost a van anyway.

The cost of electric bicycles (or scooters) in Chengdu completely amazed Lou when he first read a sale sign on them. The figure got him thinking that it must be missing a zero. In America, the cost would be ten times more. The most plausible reason for not having these scooters back home is the electricity supply is basically 110 volts, which means it would take twice as long to charge up the batteries. China is 220 volts, the same as Australia, Europe, Africa and most of Asia. Upon further thought, Lou Conover concluded that these scooters don’t really go faster than twenty to twenty five miles per hour. Americans are used to going faster than that within the painted lines on the roads.


Expatriate writer Warren Rodwell has been in China since 2002, and teaches university postgraduates in Chengdu. Many of his feature stories, reviews and photographs have been published online or in hardcopy media form. Warren also narrates documentaries and administers various websites as part of his efforts to promote Chengdu and Sichuan culture more globally.

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