Monday, April 02, 2007

Blackout Shenzhen? Felt Like it.

On August 14, 2003, I was relaxing on the Jersey shore with a friend. I had just come back from 4 week trip in China, and wanted to hang out on the beach instead of clubbing in NYC. Good choice. That day was the day of the NYC blackout. Amazing.

A power transformer had blown in a random power station somewhere in Pennsylvania. That small event led to the collapse of the entire northeast power grid. There was no power from Boston down to Washington and reaching all the way to Ohio.

Thousands of people were trapped in elevators throughout NYC. There were no subways and public transportation wasn't functioning. When I got back home, the news showed millions of New Yorkers commuting home…by foot.

Today I had a very similar experience as the New Yorkers that day…but half way around the world in Shenzhen, China.

6:05pm: I start my commute from the factory to my apartment. The commute usually lasts 25 minutes in the morning and 35 minutes at night (depending on traffic conditions). I’m hoping to get there around 6:45 for my meeting with my landlord.

6:13pm: Arrive at the 沙弯border crossing between Shenzhen suburbs and Shenzhen city limits. The bus is about to start down a 4 kilometer section of a one lane highway. This is usually the most traffic jam-prone stretch of the commute. Since the shoulder is non existent, 1 small fender-bender or one car breaking down creates a really annoying traffic jam.

6:23pm: Travel down the one lane highway is slow but consistent. There isn’t too much traffic and there are no unexpected traffic situations. I’m enjoying the ride since it gives me an opportunity to listen to the most recent Wharton Business School podcast.

6:30pm: We’ve passed the one-lane stretch of highway and have almost arrived at our next stop, 东湖宾馆 (there are no stops on the narrow highway). This 3 lane road is usually where the heavy traffic let’s up and the commute gets faster.

6:35pm: The东湖宾馆 stop is 100 feet in front of us. We’ve only moved 50 feet in the past 5 minutes. The driver refuses to let passengers off because we haven’t “officially” arrived at the stop yet. This is an understandable rule for public transportation to protect the safety of riders. No biggie.

6:38pm: We still haven’t moved. The driver finally relents and lets passengers off since there isn’t any real safety issue with just standing still. I relax in my seat and call my landlord to postpone our meeting until 7:15. I then start listening to an advanced lesson of ChinesePod.

6:38 – 6:45pm: We move 10 feet. I can see the traffic in front of me pretty well. They’re clogged up and not moving either. If people 2 km down the road are not moving, we’re not going to move in the foreseeable future. I’m getting annoyed. I organize my stuff and attempt to get off the bus. I figure that I could just take a cab home from here and still make my appointment.

6:48pm: The bus driver finally lets me off the bus after my repeated requests to open the door. After ignoring me for a bit and saying that I had missed my chance to get off the bus 50 feet ago, he gets annoyed at my complaining and lets me off.

This is the typical Chinese person of power who tries to maintain control over whoever he can. What’s the point of him keeping a passenger waiting on the bus for another 30 minutes without moving? I just don't get these people.

6:48 – 6:52pm: I walk to the closest intersection that flows away from the bottleneck. I try to get a couple of taxis but none of them would stop for me. I get even more annoyed and continue walking down the street to the next intersection.

6:58pm: I get to the next intersection, hoping to see an accident that is holding the traffic up. If I found the point of blockage, I could just walk to the nearest bus station in front of it and get on one of the 10 buses that arrive at my stop.

I don't find it. There’s just more traffic.

7:05pm: Unable to find the point of blockage, I start walking down an auxiliary street, again hoping to find a taxi to take me home. I run back and forth to and from at least 8 taxis, trying to get into one of them.

For some reason, again, none of them will take me. I keep walking.

7:10pm: I finally find a taxi and start trying to go around the traffic. Even though I missed my meeting, I still want to get home so I can relax and go to the gym.

7:12pm: After driving only one km, we are stuck in traffic again. The taxi driver crosses onto the other side of the street to try and ditch in line

All Chinese drivers love trying to get an advantage where there’s a jam by crossing the double yellow lines. The only problem is that this action rarely gives them any real advantage, but it results in the blocking of the entire traffic flow from the other direction. Just beautiful.

7:14pm: My driver turns on the traffic radio station. Interestingly enough, they’re talking about our area being really really bad. On top of that, the hosts couldn't give any reason for why the traffic was so bad today. They explained it as an anomaly where an excess amount of traffic that just converged at the same point. What they did say was to avoid this part of the city and stated how all the auxiliary roads were blocked as well since everyone was trying to find detours.

This was not just an ordinary traffic jam. This has become a systematic deterioration of the Shenzhen transportation system that has affected half of the city.

7:17pm: I cut my losses and get out of the taxi. I start walking again.

7:20pm: I arrive at the next major intersection. Traffic is completely clogged. It looks like what happens in the movies where the lights of an intersection suddenly all turn green. Bad news.

7:30pm: After looking around for a bit, I find another cab to take me down, what I think is an ok street.

7:33pm: I’m stuck again in traffic. This time I only went 0.7km. I guess I’ll never learn.

7:35pm: I get out of the taxi (again) and start walking (again). Screw it; I’m walking all the way home.

8:12pm: I finally get home. J

Quite a journey. I spent a total of 30 yuan and 2 hours and 7 minutes on a commute that should be 3 yuan and 35 minutes.

When I was walking home, I had a interesting time thinking about some of the issues going on:

  • Damn you Random Chinese Roadside Construction! You were definitely an accomplice today.
  • I wish I had a bike or motorcycle. Shenzhen has outlawed motorcycles and has discouraged bike use (by building a city without bike lanes). Even so, everyone with a bike got to where they wanted to go today.
  • Chinese people are impatient in traffic. When I was walking home, I came across a bunch of bus stops. The people there were waiting patiently for buses that were never going to come.
  • This is only going to get worse. As China continues to modernize and grow its middle class, more and more people will start buying cars. The abundant amount of new (and sucky) drivers on the same amount of urban roads is going to kill traffic.
  • Although the situation today in Shenzhen wasn't as involved, it still shared many similarities as the NYC Blackout of 2003. It felt like chaos.
  • Modern technology is of utmost importance in today’s culture. People are more dependent on technology than ever before. I don't know how I would live if I didn't have my cell phone for a week not to mention a city-wide or nation-wide blackout.
  • I wonder if there would be real life examples of the world in Independence Day, Deep Impact or A Day After Tomorrow. Actually, there have already been many isolated examples of this. Look at hurricane Katrina’s effect on the New Orleans area, the carnage of the Asian Tsunami or the river poisoning of 松花江 last year that left Harbin, China (where I was born) waterless for more than a week. Human and nature-created disasters are here.

I had a bunch of friends who experienced the NYC Blackout. They said it wasn't too bad. I don't know…I just hope my elevator works when I wake up tomorrow for another commute.

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