NOTE: Observations from subsequent trips are at "People with Disabilities in the Orient – Observations from Travels"

Observations on Traffic and Pedestrians and People with Disabilities in China
By Dona Sauerburger, COMS®
Written October, 2005 (three months after returning home)


When you read about the traffic chaos, please know that I have never known a people who are more gentle, thoughtful, friendly, and considerate than the Chinese people. They extend this consideration to strangers as well as friends and family. One example that I didn't mention in my Diary from China happened one afternoon when my son Stephan and I were struggling with a gazillion suitcases and bags to walk down the steps outside of the train station in Handang. Someone called our attention to something we dropped far behind us, and he walked over to guard it until we had retrieved it. It turned out to be Stephan's wallet, thick with papers and cards and money! Certainly there are people who would take advantage and think only for themselves, but we met very few such people while I was there (with the possible exception of my last taxi driver!).

Chaotic Traffic
Disregard of traffic laws

If there were traffic laws that the drivers obeyed faithfully, I wasn't able to figure them out. At traffic signals, I saw right-turn-on-red as well as straight-through-on-red and what-the-heck-do-anything-you-want-to-do-on-red! Time and again when the light would change to green for crossing one street, traffic on the perpendicular street would go through if they could, especially the hordes of bicycles and motor scooters, and including at least one marked police car, which I happened to catch on film! [see photos] There was one T-intersection where I wanted to walk across the top of the T, but every time the walk signal came on, a platoon of cycles of various sizes and shapes came speeding across the crosswalk from the perpendicular street, some motorized and some not, some with two and some with three wheels. I was terrorized and after several traffic signal cycles had passed, I finally ran across.

However, I noticed that none of the other pedestrians seemed concerned. They never dashed across while trying to avoid being hit. Even when large numbers of vehicles and bicycles charged toward them from all directions, the pedestrians walked nonchalantly across the street, often not even looking at the traffic, as if they assumed that the drivers would take care to avoid them. Bicyclists and drivers of 3-wheeled carts did the same thing. The drivers always did manage to avoid hitting them, even though to me they seemed to speed toward them without any regard, always missing them by inches.

The only close call came when the car in which I was riding in the inside lane of a circle was going about 25 miles an hour, overtaking another car going around the circle in the lane to our right. A pedestrian who was only about 30 feet ahead of us was crossing the circle diagonally from our left with his back to us. He was almost hit by the car to our right, and I'll never forget the sight of him leaping out of the way and into the path of our car, apparently totally unaware that we were there! Our driver honked and slowed down and swerved, the man turned and started to side-step again to avoid being hit by us, and both vehicles passed on each side of the man as he struggled to stay upright between us.

With that exception, everyone (pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers) traveled in what appeared to me to be a chaotic pattern without seeming to care about the traffic approaching them from all directions, as if trusting that it would all work out fine.

At intersections with no signals, there also seemed to be no traffic control. I saw several T intersections of two streets, each about 5-6 lanes wide, where all sorts of vehicles (from small, heavily-laden 3-wheeled bicycle/carts to buses and trucks) simply plowed through the intersection from all directions, weaving among each other incredibly close at what appeared to me to be too fast a speed to avoid collision.

Here in the U.S. I've heard pedestrian and traffic safety advocates talking about experiments in the Netherlands to increase driver attentiveness and safety by removing traffic control. Well, China has apparently been doing this for years. Our Chinese friends said there are many crashes but it would be interesting to study the actual statistics at some of these intersections to see if lack of traffic control (or lack of obeying any traffic control) yields more or fewer crashes and injuries than the intersections with signals and stopsigns in America.

[NOTE: for photos of streets that are shared equally by pedestrians and vehicles in the historic section of Guangzhou, China, click here (these photos were taken during a trip in 2006). For information about the concept of "shared surface street designs" being tried in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which is raising the concern of people with disabilities, see the Shared Surface Street Design Research Project – the Issues: Report of Focus Groups. For a suggested solution which might make shared streets accessible to blind people, see "Fabrics of the City: Designing Shared Streets for Safety and Usability" by Ken Stewart in the October 2007 issue of the American Council of the Blind's magazine, The Braille Forum.]

Traveling on the wrong side of the street or between lanes:

To turn left from a side street or driveway where there was heavy traffic coming from the right, several times the drivers of the car in which I was riding would turn left INTO THE WRONG SIDE OF THE STREET while there was oncoming traffic there! They would weave in and out of that traffic until an opening showed up on the other side of the street (the right side, where we were supposed to be traveling!), and they'd duck into that opening and resume their way. The same thing would happen when we'd want to turn left from the main street into an entrance or driveway -- if there was little or no traffic coming the other way, the driver would pull into the left side of the street and drive as much as third of a block on the wrong side before turning left out of the street.

This meant that often, as you're riding on the right side of the street, someone would be coming toward you IN YOUR LANE! Once when we got into a 3-wheeled bicycle and asked the driver to take us back to our hotel, we found ourselves riding down the yellow line in the middle of the street several times, with fast trucks and vehicles traveling in the lane on each side of us.

Signals -- confusing suggestions!

Many of the signals consisted of three large square signs suspended over the street, each box with an arrow pointing either forward, right or left. They turned red or green in a very confusing pattern which I never was able to watch long enough to try to figure out. These arrows sometimes conflicted with each other -- more than once, our vehicle (bus or taxi) approached a signal with a left-turn green arrow when the traffic coming in the opposing direction ALSO had a green signal for going straight through the intersection!

So the signals may have actually been what my son laughingly said they were -- merely suggestions to the drivers, rather than commands as they are in every other city I've visited in the world. It would explain why the drivers seemed to disregard them, and do whatever they wanted even when their signal was completely red.

Count-downs for the drivers:

Most of the cities where we traveled had large count-down signals for the drivers. They were suspended in the middle of the street next to the traffic signals and were about 3 feet high, with LED displays of how many seconds were left. I was never sure which part of the signal was being counted down, since the three arrows each changed during the countdown -- it may have been counting down the phase of all movement for a given leg of the intersection.

Vehicles traveling on the sidewalk:

In Shanghai, most of the streets have metal railings along the curb, leaving openings only at the corners. I thought maybe they were to keep the pedestrians from jaywalking, but I was told it was to keep the drivers off the sidewalks. I was rather incredulous, thinking that the curbs themselves would keep the drivers off.

How wrong I was! The next city where we traveled, Handang, had no such railings, and our first day there, the car we were riding to the bank drove up over the curb and onto the sidewalk to drop us off at the door -- literally! This happened time and again, in this and in other cities. Many of the sidewalks had lots of randomly-parked cars.

And drivers did not seem to consider sidewalks as a refuge for pedestrians. In Beijing, our taxi driver flew into the driveway of our hotel just as a man and his little boy were walking across the driveway. The man was looking away from the street talking to the little boy, so it was obvious the pedestrians wouldn't avoid the crash but our driver didn't seem to plan to stop! Going at a speed that I thought was too fast to avoid hitting them, the driver honked and the man jerked his head around and tried to pull his son out of danger. The driver screeched to a halt about 2 feet from them, and everyone moved on, looking relieved but as if nothing unusual had happened.

Wheelchair ramps were in every city where I traveled. In all my time there in all cities with paved streets and sidewalks, I only remember one corner that had no ramp. Most sidewalks had designs made with bricks or tiles, making it easy to tell that the ramps had been installed when the sidewalks were installed. I asked my middle-aged Chinese friends how old the sidewalks were and if they knew when the ramps were built, and they looked puzzled and said the ramps and sidewalks have always been there.  [Gene Bourquin read this and said, "I was told the curb cuts were 'always there' because their purpose is to give way for bicycles and motorcycles, not actually people with disabilities."]

Ah, YES, Gene, THAT explains it! Of course! In a society where there was nothing but bicycles and carts for so long, there had to be a way to get them up onto the sidewalk and into their homes / stores, so they built ramps. And hey -- maybe that's why they have a mindset of driving the cars up onto the sidewalk, it's what they've always done with their vehicles (which once were almost all bicycles), and when many of the vehicles were motorized (scooters and motorcycles) and enlarged (cars and trucks) it still seemed natural to get their vehicles up onto the sidewalks. It didn't occur to them that it wouldn't be appropriate for a car to climb the curb onto the sidewalk! The propensity for vehicles to share the sidewalks and block passage by parking their bicycles, scooters, and even cars on the sidewalk is facilitated by the ramps which ironically makes travel more difficult for people with disabilities.

Many sidewalks in each of the large cities where we traveled also had tactile markings for blind people along the sidewalks. Some of them indicated when you are passing a bus stop, and the strip went around any hazards along the path, such as poles, fire hydrants, or manhole covers (I wondered why a manhole cover would be considered a hazard until I saw one being opened -- they make no effort to barricade it from approaching people or vehicles). Sometimes they led the pedestrian away from or past important points. For example one guide strip led around the stairway that goes over the street and guided you to the corner, where there was a railing to barricade the pedestrians from the street. Truncated domes, which here in the U.S. are to be used only as an indication of danger such as a street or platform edge, are used at every turn in the strip, which is frequent.

Excerpts from the Diary about people with disabilities:
More references to observations of and interactions with people who have disabilities are in the Diary from China, some of which are included here:

Diary from China -- Thursday, July 28, 2005
Well, our adventures on the train started before we even pulled out [from Shanghai] ! As I was fussing in the sleeper cabin we shared with two guys, Stephan called out, "Mom! Come here NOW!" I ran to the window and outside three people were signing! One of them looked up and pointed to me as I stared and she signed to the others (the Deaf people in every country, including England, have their own sign language, so their signs are different from ours). One woman, in what is probably a universal sign (pointing to her ear and pointing to me with a question on her face), asked, "Are you Deaf?" and I shook my head and asked her -- she was Deaf and proud of it!

I made the sign for "America" and pointed to myself. In the last few years, each country's own sign for its name has been adapted into American Sign Language and I was hoping they knew our sign for America. When she didn't understand, I made the sign for Chinese and pointed to her, and the sign for America again and pointed to me. She still didn't understand. So I spelled it out on the window, but she gestured that she doesn't understand print. So I made a big sphere in front of me and slowly revolved it, and pointed to her and then pointed to the left side of the sphere, then pointed to me and pointed to the opposite side of the sphere. She grinned and seemed to understand.

Then the train lurched forward and I looked surprised and waved goodbye, and so did they. I held up my hands in the "I-Love-You" sign and they continued waving, and then awkwardly shaped their hands in the same "I-Love-You" sign. One of them signed to the others "The same "I-Love-You sign!" and seemed to ask each other where it came from. As they disappeared I made the sign again and signed "America!" but they probably didn't get it.

Maybe this is a good time to share my only experience seeing a blind person. As we rode from the airport my first day in China, I happened to see a man with a white cane walking along the street! Actually he was walking IN the street, along the gutter, using a very good cane technique to follow the curb. I wondered why he wasn't walking on the sidewalk, it seemed perfectly fine and the street looked like a dangerous place to walk (these drivers, I've found out, DON'T CARE about you! Kinda reminded me of Thailand 30 years ago, where we crossed the street lane by lane, only here the lanes are a little more ambiguous and I wouldn't dare stand where cars could pass me by).

Anyway, the other day I think I found out why the poor guy was walking in the street, because I found MYSELF walking in the street very much against my will! Most sidewalks here have a railing along the curb, our friends told me it was to keep the drivers off the sidewalk but the curb would make it difficult for them to drive there, my guess is that it's to keep pedestrians from crossing mid-block. We were getting off the bus, which let us off in the bicycle lane about in the middle of the block (they don't pull up to the curb as there is about 4-foot-wide lane for bicycles next to the curb and I guess they don't want to block that off while letting passengers off, so you have to be very careful because the bicyclists don't seem to consider they might mow down the passengers stepping off the bus!) After making sure we wouldn't be killed by the bicyclists I realized OOPS! There was the railing right in front of us, extending the entire length of the block! Our friends nonchalantly started walking along the street in the bicycle lane to the corner. These bicyclists, by the way, also have no regard for pedestrians so I was very nervous!

Several people have told me that Chinese people always help blind people across the street, which is good because I think it's too chaotic to do without vision. I talked with Lin, our 14-year-old friend, and asked her if Chinese feel that people become blind because they did something bad, as the Koreans do. She was shocked that anyone would think such a thing, and said no, that God made them blind because... and here she struggled with her English. I talked about these difficulties making people stronger and she agreed.

Diary from China -- Monday, August 8, 2005
Oh -- something I forgot. I had told you that on my way from the airport in Shanghai my very first day in China, I saw a blind man walking alone along the street, and later we saw some Deaf people while embarking on the train from Shanghai. Well, yesterday afternoon I saw someone in a wheelchair in Feng Feng. He was going on the left (wrong) side of the road, in the street close to the curb. I didn't realize it was a wheelchair at first -- it looked like a kind of bicycle / scooter (can't remember if it was 3 wheels or 4) but instead of pedaling with his legs, he moved a lever around horizontally with his arm, while his legs rested in front of him. I ran back to ask if I could take his picture, he said no, of course, but I couldn't resist taking a picture of his back [see photo ].

All three times, these people were out traveling independently. It's very gratifying to see that in China, people with disabilities are apparently accepted, and it isn't considered unusual for them to be independent, at least in traveling.

Diary from China -- Tuesday, August 9, 2005
I got lots of pictures of the detectable warnings and guidance strips that were everywhere for blind people. Some of the strips were very helpful, showing them where to go to the bus stop, but others were confusing, guiding them past the stairs they need to go up to reach the bridge to cross the street, instead taking them to the corner where the street is blocked off with a high fence.

Diary from China -- Thursday, August 11, 2005: Terra Cotta Warriors museum
Oh, it's 9:20 already, I had wanted to tell you about the group of Deaf children we met, and the Canadian Chinese, and the pictures of people with disabilities enjoying the exhibit (one blind guy was shown touching and exploring the face of one of the warriors, and there was a group of smiling visitors enjoying themselves who seemed to be cognitively disabled), and a little story about our driver. But I'll save all that for tomorrow, we're going to try to go find an upscale restaurant and have some nice (healthy??) dinner and then get back to the hotel early and rest.

Diary from China -- Friday, August 12, 2005
Well FINALLY, a quiet day with not much to report! I can tell you about some of the things that I didn't have time for earlier. First, the folks I met at the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit, as I promised.

….. Anyway, a little later I noticed there was a group of excited Chinese teenagers gesturing to each other and pointing to the exhibits but not speaking. I watched for a while and sure enough, I saw them signing to each other! I went over and signed "deaf?" and they looked startled, then nodded yes, and asked me, "deaf?" I shook my head no, and tried to think of how I could say that I have Deaf friends and know sign language.

They made a sign that I remember meant "sign language" in Israel, so I nodded yes (Gene, it's like the sign for "speaking/signing" in "this is Dona speaking"). Then I pointed to myself and made like the "Statue of Liberty" that Gene had suggested, but they drew a blank. I pointed to them and made the sign for "Chinese" and then pointed to me again and modeled the Statue of Liberty. Still nothing. Finally one of them did a version of my sign for "Chinese" -- I don't remember it exactly, but instead of just drawing a horizontal line across the front of the chest and then down (like the edges of the mandarin shirt front), they held their hand in a horizontal "O" and flicked a finger of their other hand across it then went to draw a line similar to mine on their chest [Gene later explained that the "O" was the sign for "button" and then they pointed to where the buttons are on the mandarin shirt] . I said, "OH!" and tried to copy it, not successfully I think, and pointed to myself again and made our sign for "American." They seemed to get it.

Well, along comes the teacher amidst our animated attempts at communication, and I grinned and signed to her "American!" while pointing to myself. She almost rolled her eyes with impatience, gave the American sign for "I know, I know!", and urged her charges to move along. So they all got herded along, waving goodbye, I gave the "I-Love-You!" sign and they grinned and signed "I-Love-You!" back.

Much later, Stephan and I went to one of the 3 pits of soldiers and leaned on the railing to look down, and a young Chinese girl standing nearby motioned that she'd like to take a picture with me. Now, be aware that 1) this was about the 5th time Chinese strangers have asked to take their picture with me and 2) I have a big problem remembering faces, even American ones, so I didn't realize she was one of the Deaf children until I saw the rest the gang signing to each other with excitement about taking our picture. So I grinned and nodded "YES!" and they got a few of their classmates to stand with me while another snapped the picture. I held my hands up in "I-Love-You!" shape (as Deaf people often do for photos in America) and some of them saw it and did the same.

Meanwhile I yelled for Stephan to come over and take our picture. When they realized what was going on, they all got excited and gathered together to pose against the railing, with me kneeling in front -- I'm eager to see the photo and see how many did the "I-Love-You!" sign [see photo].

When finished, Stephan signed "Thank you" to them, and I signed "Thank you" to Stephan for taking our picture. One of them lit up and signed to the others something about the sign for "Thank you." I got the impression that the kid recognized the sign and was pleased to see us foreigners a sign that they recognized as American -- perhaps they had had a class learning about Deaf Americans and their signs.

Then another teacher came swooping over to them, in signs that I didn't need to understand to know she was telling them, "For crying out loud, stop getting distracted and MOVE ALONG, we're LATE!"

LATER -- Okay, I wrote that early this afternoon, after a little excursion into the side streets of Xi'An, where we became completely lost and had to get a 3-wheel moped to help us find our way back (GADS! I'll never get used to the WILD traffic here -- I'll send a message describing it some time soon, suffice it to say several times we were riding along the yellow middle line between the lanes of FULL TRAFFIC coming and going on each side! They seem to have a "Right-Turn-On-Red" law AND a "Left-Turn-On-Red" law AND a "What-The-Heck-Do-Anything-You-Want-On-Red" law for the drivers and bicyclists and everyone!).

"Tai Chi Walk" and blind people:
The following diary excerpts explain a little about tai chi and how it could be useful to blind people:

Diary from China -- Saturday, July 23, 2005, Shanghai
Anyway, this morning I had my first daily lesson in Tai Chi from Zhang Mama (I'm Sauerburger mama), she is 55 and so very graceful and poised. She has been studying tai chi for 5 years and offered to teach me when I expressed interest. wow, it aint easy! I was most impressed with how we have to stand on one leg while slowly reaching forward with the other, then stepping onto the other leg, rather than just lunging like I'm used to. no wonder people get better balance and strength from doing it! After I had learned steps 1-4 (out of a 24-step movement) she went through the whole thing again, and I was so impressed with her. she and everyone in that family are such sweet people, so gracious.

Diary from China -- Monday, August 1, 2005, Yong Nian
Well, the saga continues! Before I tell you about the adventure we had after we got back to the hotel from the "Wang ba" (internet cafe) last night, I'll bring you up to date with Sun Jianguo [Tai Chi master in Yong Nian] and the Tai Chi. I told you that today was some kind of festival or ceremony at the Tai Chi center -- turns out it was their opening ceremony to kick off their new center. Well, Jianguo had asked Stephan to say a few words, and yesterday presented him with the script he wanted him to read. It was written sloppily (in Chinese, of course! Jianguo is still learning how to count to 10 in English) so Stephan needed Jianguo to write it more clearly or read it to him, and we had left word we were at wang ba and would be back by 8:30.

Last night as we groped our way along the streets in the dark back to the hotel, Jianguo called out to us from a little eatery -- he had been looking for us and hadn't gotten the message that we were at the Wang ba. So we ended up eating a little soup there with one of his students / disciples (well, until Stephan slipped into the back room to ask the cook to show him the package the soup came from, and he found out it was pork-based so we stopped eating it).

The script that Jianguo wanted him to read, it turns out, incorporated some of the things I'd been saying yesterday, such as how touching his story was, and I had told him that many people in American want to learn Tai Chi (including my own mother, and it's often been suggested for blind people to learn to build up their balance and strength, etc. --we had fun yesterday morning at a beautiful 2,000-year-old fort practicing Tai Chi and I showed him how he could teach it to blind people, which he'd like to do).

Diary from China -- Tuesday, August 2, 2005, Yong Nian
...we got a lesson in Tai Chi this morning that started out rather disastrous (in my eyes, at least) and ended beautifully. As we were walking toward the Tai Chi center this morning we saw two modern, air-conditioned buses unloading about 100 people who went into the center and got a lecture (through a bull horn as they all stood gathered around him, no further than 30 feet away -- I guess they don't have a microphone system yet) and then Stephan and I were ushered up onto the stage to start our "lesson" (YIKES! All I could think was -- sorry Uncle Dick and John and everyone, but it's probably not printable here!) and Sun Jianguo started demonstrating and then gently correcting our positions as we copied him, and people took pictures of us. GADS!!!!!!

Anyway, after I got over the shock of being on display for their benefit, they filed out and boarded the bus again (I guess this was just one of the stops on their tour), and we continued the lesson. Now, I have to explain that when Zhang Mama was teaching me, I was very uncomfortable -- I didn't mind the people gathering around and smiling (at what I felt was a very awkward old white woman's attempts), what I minded was having no interpreter to explain what she was saying, and basically just trying to follow her motions, and not being able to remember them worth diddly. It made me uncomfortable and wanting to avoid more "lessons."

But when Sun Jianguo taught us (after the people all left!), it was a pleasure! First of all, it helped to have an interpreter for the instruction. We learned to walk with stability and wonderful posture, and got the beginning movements of the Tai Chi. When I asked about the movements Sun Jianguo was doing with his body / pelvis / back, he assured us we were at stage one and that was at stage 4. Voila! I can learn this! I can go about it slowly and grasp it! But he did let us feel his back as he made the movements and I can't describe the contorted movements his spine / muscles were doing, I'm sure it will be a while before I can do it.

Diary from China -- Thursday, August 4, 2005
Greetings from downtown Feng Feng in the province of Hebei! When I last wrote, I was leaving the wang ba in a back alley of Yong Nian at 2:30 in the morning. Stephan still had "20 minutes" left to do on the computer (turned out to be 2 hours!) so I went back to the hotel myself. That involved walking in TOTAL pitch black for about 2 block-lengths along a narrow dirt alley with deep puddles from the heavy rain (hoping that Stephan gave me correct directions!) and then walking for about a half mile (with street lights, thank goodness!) through a COMPLETELY deserted town and through 2 dark tunnels under the old walls, then eagerly going into the shower to wash off my FILTHY dripping muddy feet / sandals and OH NO! No freaking water AGAIN!

During the walk, I wasn't scared, just nervous, which was a pleasant surprise (as a teenager, I had always felt sheer terror when walking home along our very dark, long driveway at night, so I was glad that at least that unreasonable fear has dissipated). There is virtually no crime there, so the only problem was trying not to get ankle-deep in the puddles or slip in the mud. At one point in the dark alley I groped for and found the narrow ledge that we had walked on earlier to avoid the puddles and mud, and I used the Tai Chi walk we'd learned the day before to step forward with my weight on my back leg for when I unexpectedly reached the end of the ledge or a hole (it worked great!)

ADDED LATER: Being blind in China
For an insightful narrative of experiences in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China from the perspective of a blind person, visit the travel blog of Christie Gilson, who presented at the International Mobility Conference. She is a blind doctoral candidate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was in Hong Kong on a Fulbright scholarship for ten months to study college students with disabilities. The narrative of her experiences in Guangzhou, China was particularly enlightening. After her trip, she wrote an article about the devastating effect the attitudes of people can have on one's self-esteem, and the courage it takes to overcome it.

At the International Mobility Conference in Hong Kong, I learned about an exciting development that may one day give some leverage in advocating for accessibility, as well as for sufficient O&M training to be available to everyone. In her presentation, Kicki Nordstrom from Sweden explained that the United Nations is considering a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that would require countries that adopt the law to provide access to social, economical, cultural, civil, and political rights, as to the physical and informational environment to people with disabilities. Among the rights specified in the document is the right to rehabilitation and education. This Convention is more powerful than previous efforts -- if it is adopted and ratified, nations which want to be accepted into the U.N. must adopt the laws of the Convention. [NOTE: Kicki said that the Convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly the 13th of December without any reservations, confirming the rights listed here. Now, all that remains is for 20 countries to ratify it -- the convention will be open for signatures and ratification March 30, 2007 - for more information, see her article or read the entire Convention at a page on the UN website.]

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