Barriers, Barriers, Barriers – Being a Pedestrian in Shenzhen -Rae-Leigh

What I can’t keep my mind off of is transportation! I love looking at how people get around – do they look comfortable, do they look stressed, or are they going about their day and enjoying their travel? In Shenzhen people are everywhere. The sidewalks are crowded and the streets are overflowing with cars, people, buses, scooters, and bikes. If you give people the space, they will be there. Yet, with all the people in China, limited space, and a low car ownership (11% according to Ministry of Public Security statistics), the majority of the space on city streets has been planned for cars.

Shenzhen began to develop in the early 80s. The city was designed with the car on the forefront of the plans and it was at the peak of the economic boom in China. I have found it difficult to walk around some parts of Shenzhen. There are many physical barriers and bollards separating people from streets, only some of the intersections have ramps on them, and broken sidewalks are in abundance. The barriers and bollards are used to prevent cars and scooters from riding on the sidewalks. I don’t know the solution for this issue, but police enforcement to change the behavior of the drivers might result in change.

Bollards-01 Barriers-01

If I find it difficult as an able-bodied person, I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone with a physical disability or even a stroller. Throughout the city and others in China, the sidewalks have a strip of textured concrete indicating to someone who is vision impaired that this is the correct route to take. They thought this through, and from what I can tell, it’s a mainstream form of transportation planning throughout China. Other than this textured strip, many other details have gotten lost. While ADA in the US is not perfect, it has paved the way for people to get around more easily. There are some details that I wish were applied here, including the minimum walkway width of 5 feet and required curb ramps at intersections.

 Passing Width-01

Trip Hazard-01

At some of the busiest intersections, white fence-like barriers are placed all over the intersection to prevent people from crossing the road. Instead of providing street-level crosswalks, a series of pedestrian tunnels were built to cross the roads. These tunnels are dark, uninviting, and are uncomfortable places to walk. It’s quite confusing to navigate and it requires you to have the ability to walk down stairs. I have no idea what it costs or how long it takes to build tunnels like that, but I think a better solution would be to provide crosswalks, refuge islands, and other infrastructure at these intersections instead of requiring people to travel underground.

Tunnel System-01

In China, I have ridden on some of the best metro systems. You can take the subway anywhere and everywhere. It is super easy to navigate, the user experience as been well thought out, and the system is very efficient. I’m definitely not saying the transportation system is bad here, but I do wish some of the same thoughts were spent on moving pedestrians around on city streets. I love walking around my neighborhood and throughout the city! There is so much to look at, different smells to smell, and people to watch. Shenzhen is a great city to enjoy by foot, but it would be much more enjoyable if you didn’t continually have to watch your step or figure out how to maneuver around the many barriers.

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7 thoughts on “Barriers, Barriers, Barriers – Being a Pedestrian in Shenzhen -Rae-Leigh

  1. Andy says:

    That map of the pedestrian undercrossing really brings me back. I could explore Shenzhen on foot for ages!

    • Same! That’s how I spend most of my evenings here. There’s so much to see and I’m always noticing new things. It’s great that the pedestrian undercrossings were constructed, but I think they might serve as much as a barrier for some people as they do as a crossing for others. Maybe it just takes getting used to?

  2. Ray Atkinson says:

    I love the illustrations! They bring your photos to life much more than words can ever do. Did you use Illustrator to make the illustrations?

    While the Netherlands has plenty of unsafe bollards and uses barriers often, I’ve never seen the abundance of barriers that you are experiencing! Why are bollards needed on the sidewalk and dividers needed on the road blocking safe crossings?

    The underground tunnels seem to serve the same purpose as the sky bridges in Portland. One of the disadvantages of both is they take people off the streets. As we learned about in class, this is the reason why Portland is banning sky bridges. Is a similar discussion being held about the underground tunnels?

    Regarding ADA, I was told the Netherlands also doesn’t have ADA rules either. The Netherlands also has plenty of wheelchair accessibility issues. This is mostly because streets in the Netherlands were built before the wheelchair was invented and the Dutch prioritize biking over walking. Do you know if any other country in the world has something similar to ADA?

    • Thanks Ray! Yes I made them in Illustrator really simply.

      Barriers are everywhere here. The style of driving is really different and it’s hard to compare to my experience in the US or Europe. When you first look at the traffic flow you think, these drivers are horrible! When you get used to it, it’s totally different. You realize that the drivers are awesome at weaving and maneuvering their vehicle. They know exactly how much space their vehicle takes up on the road. I’ve learned to trust the drivers here, maybe even more than US drivers! But if there’s a space for them, they’re going to drive there, especially the scooters. I think on local roads the barriers are there to prevent scooters on the sidewalk. On collector and arterial roads the barriers are the prevent crashes between cars and to separate and prevent crashes between cars and pedestrians.

      Hmmmm you know I’m not sure if there are any discussions here regarding the underground tunnels. They help you cross some pretty major roads, but it’s not a comfortable experience. There’s so much density and people here, that having a network of tunnels doesn’t remove too many people from the streets!

      I don’t know if there are similar policies like ADA in other countries. There are plenty of horrible places to walk in the US, but hopefully over time it will get better as the infrastructure is retrofitted to adhere to ADA requirements.

  3. PSU China says:

    Great observation, Rae-Leigh!
    I love the first picture, indicating the extreme long pedestrian crossings in Chinese cities. There was a saying in Chinese that about a little mouse crossing the street in the summer, it was so hot and long journey, that the mouse was burned to death in the middle of the crossing.

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