Monday, September 15, 2008
Keeping Commuters in Line
These past few days I went to Xian to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.
This year China changed the public holiday calendar so that people could have a day of rest after staying out with family on Mid-Autumn Festival day that fell on Sunday this year.
Xian seems to be under a constant haze which can make the city seem dreary.
On the road from the airport to the city, the streets are narrow, with two-way traffic, from cars and bicycles, mopeds and trucks trying to squeeze through.
Roadside stores don't seem to offer much, with people lingering outside them waiting for business.
But once you get into the city, past the north city wall, Xian starts to resemble what Beijing probably looked like 10-15 years ago.
Strange modern buildings harking back to the 1980s stand proudly, with lots of bank buildings for some reason. There isn't much of an industry except for tourism, thanks to some farmers who discovered some terracotta warriors on their fields in 1976.
Xian is laid out on an axis much like Beijing, but on a smaller scale so it's relatively easy to figure out where you're going.
We walked a lot on the streets, but currently with subway construction happening (long overdue, but still won't be open until 2012), there are periodic jams, as the construction sites disrupt traffic, and there's no thought of foot traffic trying to get through safely.
But what impressed me most were the traffic wardens, a group of about five standing at each major corner of an intersection.
They're mostly elderly men, wearing green uniforms, sunglasses, a hat and white gloves. Their other major pieces of equipment on the job are a red flag and a whistle.
They use their flags to direct people when they should cross the street and they keep people and vehicles in line by sharply blowing on their whistles.
They have no shame in berating pedestrians or drivers for either standing in the wrong place or driving through a red light.
I wonder if they get demerits on their work performance or if it's an important part of their work mandate to make sure their corner of the intersection is safe.
It certainly gives people like me a sense of relief to know I'm crossing an intersection safely when they're there.
But they're not at every single street corner in Xian and there are some intersections with no lights or traffic wardens at all, leaving everyone to precariously cross the street.
Nevertheless, these traffic wardens are too cool. Beijing needs more of them, especially their militant attention to road safety.