The diversity and quantity of vehicles and people makes driving and even walking in Beijing a challenge. From observation, there are a number of rules you must follow if you want to be safe:
1. You can drive a truck, car, motorbike, bicycle, tricycle, scooter, e-bike, skateboard, hoverboard, segue or indeed any of the plethora of strange vehicles that do not fit neatly into any of these categories – or indeed walk – anywhere you like – subject to what is possible according to the laws of physics (and you should aim to test these from time to time just to be sure). So, cars will use sidewalks where convenient, but at the same time people will ride motorised skateboards, without any apparent fear of being apprehended, and certainly without raising an eyebrow from fellow commuters, down the centre of multi-laned roads filled with cars, buses and trucks.
2. You can, if on a bike, or anything not technically a full sized car, say an electric car for example, drive on the wrong side of the road, at any time. When facing oncoming traffic in these situations, you may choose to go to the left or to the right of this oncoming traffic as long as you look to maintain a roughly 50/50 split for each encounter. This means if most people in one lane are going to the left of oncoming traffic, you and a few others should elect to go to the right. This ensures that no-one can assume which direction someone coming head-on will go and therefore helps maintain vigilance and avoid accidents. As the roads are always packed, this rule makes drivers plan and use foresight and watch out carefully for oncoming traffic with one eye at all times.
3. The other eye must be on your phone at all times. Riding, driving, scooting, skating and walking, or anything in between, must only be done with a mobile phone in one hand with your head looking down at the screen. The penalties for not having your mobile in your hand while in public, judging by the behaviour of Beijingers, must be severe. And this rule is not limited by the humbleness of the vehicle. Down the pecking order, near the bottom, are the old tricycles that have not had an electric engine added and are still driven by leg power by the cardboard recyclers; along with these are the old carts that are pulled along like a reverse sort of wheelbarrow like those in ancient paintings. The drivers of these are just as likely to be immersed in their mobile phones as they walk or peddle or drag their loads along the street as the bright young things in their Maseratis, Porsches and Bentleys.
4. There are a number of times you must use your horn. You must sound it if you are in a hurry; if anyone hesitates when a gap opens up in front of them; when approaching and passing a pedestrian or bicycle (particularly if they are looking at their mobile phone or in conversation, which is nearly always); when approaching any intersection; as well as at any time if you have not met your daily quota for horn use. You must also use it repeatedly when the traffic grinds to a standstill – this helps get the traffic flowing again and prevents gridlock. The general rule is, if in doubt, give it a toot or three. The second most useless sign in Beijing is the one at the gates of residential compounds that says “no horns” (the first is the “no smoking” sign but that is another story). The only exception to the rule on using horns is made for electric scooters. Here, clearly, the use of such a device would spoil the effect of silently racing up on and passing unwary pedestrians or cyclists with millimetre precision.
5. Unlike your horn, you must not use your indicators. No-one uses indicators. In truth, this is partly because of the way the roads are set up. They have multiple separated lanes going in one direction and so an indicator is not going to tell anyone anything useful. At a standard intersection a car may be doing a U-turn (these are very popular here), turning left into the main street, turning left into the secondary street, just turning into the secondary street going in the same direction or just pulling over and stopping. All five of these scenarios could possibly be signalled by the use of a left indicator but this would not help other drivers much as they wouldn’t know which of the five was being signalled. This said, this non-use of indicators is carried over to situations where an indicator could have been quite useful and unambiguous. I’m not sure why this rule is so strongly adhered all the time – it must be something political.
6. You must learn the art of bluff or how to play chicken. In fact, the most important skill on Beijing Roads is the gaining of positional advantage. The "I got there first" rule wins every time. That, and selective blindness. So, for example, if you wish to turn across traffic you should. You only need to make sure your nose is in front of the car coming towards you and they have to slow down and give way – if only to avoid crashing into you. This means that if the car in front of you is turning left across traffic for example, you should be able to turn too, using their turn to your positional advantage. All of a sudden, it’s the cars turning in front that have the upper hand until a driver in the traffic that wants to go straight ahead can nudge his or her car’s nose into the stream of oncoming traffic and thus switch the positional advantage back. So, in short, if you can get the front right hand corner of your car past the front of an oncoming car, you are king.
7. You may pull over, stop and park anywhere at any time. Say, for example, you have reached a particularly riveting point in the South Korean soap opera you are watching as you drive, you may stop, in either lane and watch as much as you need – though most drivers will keep the car rolling – see rule 4. Strangely, if you stop in a really unusual spot, say in the outside lane of a two or three lane divided road, others will be less likely to use their horn than say if you are just driving along normally or even driving slowly staring into your phone. By stopping in the fast lane you seem to somehow signify to others drivers your complete mastery of the Beijing traffic rules.
8. Despite the rules above, it is clear that the true masters of Beijing traffic know when and how they should break these and any other traffic rules. In general all you have to do is to keep driving in the direction you want to go, irrespective of any obstacles and rules, slowly – in fact the more crazy the manoeuvre, the slower you should do it – which is in fact pretty sensible once you get past the part where you actually choose, of your own volition, to undertake the particular manoeuvre in the first place.
9. Finally, if you are actually unsure of your own volition, say you feel you might be possessed, or maybe you are just overcome by the sheer complexity of the traffic and you have given up trying to work out what to do, or you are lost or looking for something, or if you are completely unsure of what you might do next, you only need to put on your hazard lights to signal this to other drivers – they will then know that they can no longer count on you to make decisions about manoeuvres based on any kind of risk assessment at all and should give you a slightly wider berth as they seek to get past you as quickly as possible.
So, that's it. And it works for Beijing's 23 million commuters, with less stress and less danger than in your average Australian city. In fact, if you drove like Australians did here, you would not last long. Likewise, if you followed these rules in Australia, I suspect you wouldn't last long either.