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Metro Beijing

Running the risk in alley traffic

Updated: 2011-05-31 07:42
By Renee Haines ( China Daily)

Running the risk in alley traffic

We need to stop drivers who try to squeeze past pedestrians in capital's narrow lanes

On a recent Saturday, I found myself wedged against the front fender of an oncoming car moving centimeters by slow centimeters through crowds of shoppers and bar patrons in the narrow alley that is Beijing's Nanluoguxiang. The driver could not back up or press forward, hemmed in by pedestrians forced to push hard against other people to create just enough space to allow the car to move slowly forward before rolling to yet another stop.

I once saw a small child scooped up in a parent's arms and held above the crush of oncoming cars and crawl of bicycle taxis in this ancient hutong, which is popular for its trendy shops and restaurants.

This famously busy hutong looks like a bad accident waiting to happen, especially on weekends. Little miracles too often forestall disaster. A brief opening up of a small space will sometimes send someone careening into a crowd to escape an oncoming car, only to topple other people and their packages. You can flatten yourself against a wall of a restaurant to avoid a slow-motion collision with metal, and find other people flattening themselves against you.

It's treacherous when cars approach from opposite directions on a lane only wide enough for one car - and then neither car offers to back up. Sometimes a stranger will reach out and pull you by your arm to safety. One time, I silently cheered as a parent with one hand on a stroller used her free hand to slap the hood of an oncoming taxi in obviously ineffectual but heartfelt protest.

Now the summer weather has arrived, it's a scene repeated in too many narrow alleys, where pedestrians must avoid cars parked in places meant for bicycles to enjoy the outdoor seating provided on cool evenings by many Beijing restaurants. It's more than annoying. It's dangerous.

Once, I had to push my chair hard against an outdoor table already pushed against a wall to avoid a scraped elbow from an oversized SUV pushing through, scraping against plastic tables and chairs. One fellow just stood up and held his chair high above his head to avoid a bruised backside.

Isn't this a fixable problem?

Pedestrians can stop insisting that they be dropped off midway in an alley instead of at the safer edges of a narrow lane. Drivers can stop inching through packed alleys in search of a rare space big enough to park or a shortcut to another street. It's definitely not a shortcut when you are stopping and starting through a crowded alley.

I've also seen too many cars scrape the paint from other vehicles already wedged against a wall. Is it really worth risking your paint job and wasting the gas money spent with your engine running in stalled alley traffic, not to mention risking another human being's safety?

Why can't the city halt vehicle traffic through those narrow, crowded alleys that tend to be crowded with pedestrians? Yes, delivery trucks need access to restaurants and stores. Perhaps, delivery trucks could be allowed in crowded alleys early in the morning or late at night, but banned during busy times.

"No parking" signs could solve the problem for all other vehicles, but still allow free movement by emergency vehicles. Even a "no parking" sign effective only on Saturdays and Sundays would be a welcome start.

There are not enough legitimate parking places in Beijing, and parking prices are going up. Risking lives for that rare spot to park in a pedestrian-crowded alley will not solve this problem. But the city could do something to make this summer Mecca for tourists more pedestrian-friendly.

Speaking of which, why are so many cars allowed to leave roads, jump curbs and park on pedestrian sidewalks? To Beijingers on foot, especially relative newcomers, that can be a really scary sight.

The author is a copy editor for To comment, e-mail The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of METRO.


(China Daily 05/31/2011)