I do not own a car and (gasp!) I don’t currently own a bicycle. My main modes of transportation in Portland are public transit, my feet, and the occasional car2go. Here in Chongqing, I walk to work, and I have a CAUPD-supplied transit pass which used a few times to ride the bus and the train.
Because I have been walking so much, I feel comfortable saying that the area where we live and work in Chongqing was not built for pedestrians…or if it was, it is certainly not being treated that way.
I’ll admit, there are some nice pedestrian spaces in our neighborhood – streets with fairly large sidewalks, a wide buffer between pedestrians and the six-to-eight-lane street, and plenty of tree cover. There are also other useful pedestrian amenities, such as painted crosswalks at all intersections, and many stoplights have pedestrian countdowns. (Contrary to what the pictures below show, there are generally quite a few other people on the sidewalks.)
Unfortunately, the infrastructure is not always so nicely constructed, and the main enemy of pedestrians – cars – often make walking in Chongqing a stressful and dangerous experience.
Car ownership is growing rapidly in China, and we have been told that Chongqing is not an exception. Indeed, there are cars everywhere. Cars on the road, of course, but also cars on the sidewalk. Walking to work means going through a maze of cars parked on what seems (to me) like a pedestrian walkway. Cars are parked both in painted parking spots (on what possibly was designed to be a parking lot, but also may have originally been a nice, wide sidewalk) but there are also cars that clearly just hopped a curb to park on the sidewalk. This phenomenon was also noted by my classmate Shavon, who is an intern in Beijing this summer.
Another reason that walking in our area of Chongqing is unpleasant is that the blocks are very long (nearly 1000 ft west to east, according to Google Maps), meaning that there are few opportunities to cross the street at a designated crossing with a light. The road on which our office sits – Xingguang Ave – has no designated pedestrian crossing for about 1 km.
On this street, there is a center boulevard with vegetation, and nearly all openings on both sides of the street have been fenced in. Even though Xingguang is a popular path for many speeding cars during the morning and afternoon rush hours, people often hop the fence and run across the road to get to their office. The pedestrian infrastructure on the west side of this quarter mile stretch is otherwise very nice – wide sidewalks with trees and a planted barrier. On the east side, you have to traverse through another sidewalk/parking lot before getting to a nice sidewalk. Both sides of the street have one dangerous north-south crossing where cars often come barreling through with no regard for pedestrians.
Though there are pedestrian countdowns at many intersections, they are not timed at a pedestrian interval. There are several intersections where we almost always get stuck half-way across and have to wait over a minute to finish crossing, though those do tend to have pedestrian boulevards in the middle. There is also one intersection on the way to work where the pedestrian light is half as long as it should be (with no boulevard), and one of the corners at the same intersection has a large landscaped area, meaning that we have to stand in the street to wait and run across. There are also several places where the sidewalk has caved in a bit or has potholes.
Though we’ve found some unfortunate pedestrian infrastructure in our neighborhood, I have not found this to be the situation everywhere. To the south, in the old part of Chongqing, the sidewalks are smaller and thus there is no room for cars. Where there is new development, the sidewalks are larger, but still mostly free of cars and full of pedestrians. There is also a large pedestrian-oriented shopping street near Jiefangbei Square, which we will surely cover more exhaustively in a later post. Similarly, we found that the area near Chongqing University, in the Shapingba district to the west, also has a pedestrian-friendly environment.
Overall, it seems to me that cars seem to have less mercy for pedestrians than they do in Portland, and the infrastructure in Chongqing definitely gives them the advantage. I am not sure of the legality of parking on the sidewalk, though it doesn’t seem to be a problem for drivers. I consider myself a “strong and fearless” pedestrian, but I’m not sure it does me any good here. People are not afraid to walk out in the middle of the block while there is traffic coming from both directions, but it doesn’t mean that the cars will stop.
So what’s to be done? There are several new transit lines being built or planned for Chongqing, which might alleviate the perceived need for a car in the future. Other cities in China have tried large fees (Shanghai) and a lottery (Beijing) to reduce cars, so perhaps a similar measure is in store for Chongqing. Any ideas?
(Update) Just found an article from the World Bank that describes a forthcoming online platform that will allow citizens in Beijing to submit issues related to cycling and walking infrastructure! According to the article, the transportation planners in Beijing plan hope to use the tool to ”collect feedback from citizens on urban transport conditions, so as to build them safer and more accessible.” Perhaps if this application proves to be useful, it will spread to other cities.