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OFF THE WALL: The scary streets of Beijing

Aug. 13, 2008, 10:10 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Every day has been the same so far at the Olympics: ride a torturously slow bus to the media center, race off in a taxi, nearly kill 257 people, stop for directions 10 times, park in moving traffic to get out, pay, do it all over again to get back.

I've muscled BMWs out of Paris traffic circles, kept a five-speed from rolling back into Jettas on the steep hills of San Francisco, won chicken matches with New York cabbies. None of it compares to the wild streets of Beijing, where lines don't seem to matter, lights are sometimes optional and the apparent goal is to cut off as many people as possible.

If you're not aggressive here, you might not make it out of the driveway.

The funny part about it, the part most of us Westerners have a hard time understanding, is that there seems to be a method to this chaos.

Drop someone from rural Kansas into Beijing traffic and their head would likely explode after being cut off for the 22nd time - in the first three minutes.

For Chinese drivers, it's a natural part of everyday life on the roads, a predictable pandemonium. They expect cars to turn right on red without looking; they anticipate a pass on the wrong side of the road; they are ready when a bus cuts to the front of the line to make a double turn from the center lane.

Think of it as a swarm of bats. The disorder we see is actually part of a harmonized formula, each individual possessing an innate understanding of where the other is going.

As a colleague who's been here for a while told me: It's not bad driving, it's just a different style.

It can be dangerous, though.

Most Chinese had not been able to afford cars before this past decade, so the roads today are filled with middle-aged people just learning to drive. I have a hard time avoiding crashes on my kid's NASCAR video game, so I couldn't imagine trying to climb behind the wheel for the first time at nearly 40.

According to the World Health Organization, China has 680 traffic fatalities a day, compared to 115 in the United States, which has more cars. China is expected to pass the U.S. as the world's largest automobile market as early as next year, so those numbers could go up.

Beijing has 3.3 million cars, adding 1,000 per day to roads already filled with one of the world's largest bicycle populations.

And the people riding those 10 million or so bikes ... boy, are they fearless.

Even with wide bike lanes on every major road, bicycles are everywhere, weaving through traffic, crossing against red lights, appearing from behind parked cars like some kind of shooting gallery game.

But the bicyclists, like pedestrians, always seem to know how far to push it, riding to the edge of traffic then stopping inches short of a bus just before they would be crushed by it.

Same thing with the cab drivers. They work through traffic as if their cars have millimeter-thick force fields, coming close to other cars but never quite touching. Even when passengers yell "watch out!" - yes, that was me - they never change expression, calmly avoiding the collision as if stepping over a ladybug on the sidewalk.

The cab drivers here may stop for directions three times every trip, but they sure have a feel for the dimensions of their cars.

They need to, too, with all the congestion on Beijing's streets.

The Chinese government pulled half the cars off the road for the Olympics to improve air quality, yet the roads are still jammed in nearly every direction, particularly around the Olympic Green.

Intersections can be a nightmare, in part because of signals that seem to take forever to change, but also because there's just too many cars trying to go too many directions. During a recent trip to a restaurant, it took nearly 10 minutes and at least five light changes to get through one intersection because cars kept running the light - despite a police officer directing traffic.

If this is what Beijing's traffic is like now, I'd hate to see it when all the cars are on the road.