Saturday, April 5, 2014

New City Order and Orderliness

There have been some major changes in this city in last few months. Zhanjiang got a new mayor last year.  I'm not sure how this happens, I think they are appointments with a beginning and an ending date.  He is overseeing the huge overhaul the city has been slated to have.  The new economic development zone is developing. there is lots of new building, and many buildings are getting face lifts.  Unlicensed vendors have been chased away, to be replaced by trash bins.  It has transformed from a kind of seedy, but sort of charming place with a decent climate and OK air quality, to a less seedy, sort of charming place with a decent climate and OK air quality.  The City was trying to get some upgraded designations from the regional and national governments, especially as a place to go for a holiday.
It didn't get the tourist destination mecca designation, but it did get listed as a "Green City".  Most likely because for most of the year the prevailing winds blow off of the South China Sea, chasing the smog inland.  Since major Chinese cities have the worst air quality in the world, and are basically overcrowded toxic waste pits with horrifying traffic gridlock, the bar is set kind of low.
I'm sure one of the reasons Zhanjiang did not pass vacation spot muster, was the free for all driving habits of the motorists and motorbikes.  Especially motorbikes.   125cc gas powered "taxis" and scary stealth electric scooters were going any direction they wanted, running traffic lights, using sidewalks as shortcuts, and using school children as slalom poles.
The story is that Hizzoner the Mayor, while observing one especially egregious act of two wheeled terror, told the rider to drive safely and was asked "Who the fuck are you?".  It didn't go over well, and inspired the Mayor make some changes.  I don't know if this is a true story or not, but the change has been remarkable.
A small army of traffic police were hired, and placed at all major intersections and began enforcing the following rules:

  • Licenses are required for all motorbikes, including electric models.
  • Everyone needs a driver's license.
  • Everyone must obey traffic laws, including stopping at signals and going the correct direction.
Major four and six lane streets have smaller lanes that are designated for bike and motorbike traffic.  In the past, people traveled in both directions on these, regardless of which side of the street they were on.  Now they must go with the same flow as the main traffic, and not both directions.  Motorbikes cannot use the main part of the street, only these lanes.
People who break the law, have their bikes confiscated.  At first there were flatbed trucks at the major intersections quickly filling up with scofflaw bikes.  Word got around quickly, and after a couple of months, what was once chaos, is now much more orderly and safe.  People stop at the lights.  They ride in the correct direction.  There are traffic police at crosswalks before and after school directing traffic.  This may sound like a normal state of affairs in the  US or Britain, but it's big potatoes here.
This is a place where people's idea of a queue is to converge en masse on the point of interest with elbows flailing.  If they want to go somewhere, they go in the shortest direction possible.  Too bad if there are others trying to get there too, me first!  I've heard Westerners describe China as "organized chaos".  They are close, except there is nothing much organized about it.  People here have lived for far too many years under what could be described as iffy circumstances. The slow, polite people are the ones who missed out on that rare food allocation, or were on the wrong end of the public denunciation.  They were part of the natural selection of less benevolent times.  No wimps.
If you had told me that you could get these people to follow basic traffic laws, I would have bet you money, given you generous odds, and planned my Christmas shopping with the money I was going to make from you.  However, my loved ones would have had a grim Christmas.  These people folded.
Apparently they did not like their bikes confiscated, and somehow they have submitted to an orderly lifestyle on the streets.  I no longer view crossing the street as an exercise in cheating death.
The other plus, is that motorbikes seem to feel more secure.  There is very little honking coming from them anymore.  Amazing!

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