Dalian streets provide transportation, markets, kitchens, warehouses, meeting rooms, badminton courts, cart paths, workshops, laundries, restaurants, shoe stores, bike lanes, groceries, card rooms, and playgrounds. Traffic, in general seems tame compared to other cities of several million people, although the locals complain about how busy the streets are. The busiest of the streets around Zhongshan Square are 4 marked lanes often carrying 5 lanes of traffic, but even here, pedestrians thread their way across the street lane-by-lane for crossings, and the cops pay no attention. In the downtown, traffic lights are sparse. I'd guess that maybe 1 out of 6 intersections has a stop light.
Pedestrians seem to have no rights here, but then they have very few restrictions. Nobody waits for traffic. Even the 80 year old ladies move across the street one lane at a time and it's not uncommon to get squeezed between a trolley and a bus going opposite direction not more than a few feet apart.
Taxis are everywhere, very rare to have to wait more than 60 seconds on any street for an open cab. Cabbies are aggressive and cranky. They don't seem to mind waiting at the curb for as long as it takes to get all things packed and everyone seated, or to count change when the fare is over, but once they pull out into traffic, one hand is on the horn and the other is waving people, carts and buses out of their way. They will start honking half a block away as if it was a public service. While everyone else, including trucks and trolleys, slow down for the old guy in the crosswalk, it will be the cabbie who speeds up and tries to "beat" him, often times followed by one or two of his comrades. Without stoplights, it is often a matter of "am I big enough to damage that vehicle, and if I am, can he see me well enough to know that". I try to stay on the downstream side of someone taller and heavier than I am.
I was beginning to think that there were remarkably few traffic accidents here. But I took a cab the other day, probably went 15 blocks and the guy had his horn going at least half the time, even when there was no apparent target within range. He just liked his horn. About a block from my office, he stopped honking long enough to pull into an intersection and the chrome bumper of an SUV that ended up about 12" from my face. The impact actually felt good, at least it stopped the honking. Like when the dentist puts the drill down.
Buses are great, and there is a trolley system that goes from one end of downtown to the other. No subway yet in Dalian, but there is planning underway. Bus fare is $.15.
People tend to walk in the street, not necessarily because its safer, its just that anything that resembles a sidewalk can be used by anyone for anything. Many businesses use their frontage either for more store space - tables, merchandise, shipping/receiving, or as their warehouse. Heavy tarps with chains and padlocks are the security. Laundries use the sidewalks for dryers. Retailers use the sidewalk for showrooms.
Many restaurants use the sidewalk for food prep, which in Dalian includes air curing fish and vegetables. The chef cuts or fillets or otherwise prepares the item, then it hangs it out on the curb for a day or 2 until it's "just right". Many vendors make the sidewalk their whole store with no more formality than the street banner that last week was advertising a soccer match. Fish, vegetables, blankets, clothing, housewares, meat and fruit can all be purchased off the pavement.
Unloading a fish delivery onto the sidewalk is a theater event in itself. The fish are dumped or thrown off the bike or van - total chaos - they slither every direction well off whatever protection the vendor had put down (sometimes into the storm drain inlets where one hopes they make it back to the ocean for another chance). People start to gather around the action, often getting involved helping to round up the produce. The voices rise as they assess the type and quality of the catch. The fish flap around on the ground as the buyers in the crowd start pointing out the ones they want to purchase. The crowd critiques their selection like a Wall Street trading pit, then quiets down as the buyer and vendor negotiate a price. This cycle goes on several times until the pile is deleted, and finally the crowd disperses with congratulations all around for a sale well managed. When the vendor hits the traffic right, he can sell several hundred pounds of fish in not more than 30 minutes and be back on his way to the port.
The more sophisticated sidewalk vendors have some sort of portable rig with all their gear on it. These can be anything from kitchens on motorized tricycles to a sharpening wheel on a portable sawhorse, carried by hand. Typical street vendors include shoe repair, locks and keys, tailors, appliance repair, watch repair, ipod (calculator, cell phone) repair, eyeglass repair, and, of course, any kind of food prep you can imagine. Streets are also the advertising space for tradesmen who put their tools in the gutter for display, maybe prop up a simple sign, and then wait for the customers to come by and pick them up.
Oh, and the sidewalks are the parking lots too. The pedestrian has to contend with all these uses if he wants to actually walk on the sidewalk and, consequently, it's just easier to use the street, watch out for traffic.
Walking in Dalian is a great entertainment. In Zhongshan and Xigang districts, which comprise the "downtown", maybe 2 kilometers wide and 6 kilometers long, it's hard to walk more than 3 or 4 blocks without encountering something of interest on the sidewalk - fruit strand, cobbler, newsstand, if not an entire market with dozens of stalls selling food, clothes and housewares.
There is also a lot of construction of all types and levels. Workmen sawing, welding, painting, and upholstering in their makeshift sidewalk workshops across the street from cranes moving 10 ton loads of steel up to the 40th floor. The level of manual labor here continues to astound me. For the last 2 weeks, a crew has dug, set, covered and paved a utility trench near my apartment, probably 100 meters long and 2 meters deep. All done by hand, including the paving.
There are several very active pedestrian streets. Russian Street, near the original shipping docks, is famous all over Asia as the center of Dalian's Russian occupation which started in 1898. The occupation lasted only about 6 years, but they built a City Hall, hospital and performance hall as well as several nice late Victorian commercial structures that are a very fun backdrop for the excuse to sell the same crap you can buy for half as much 6 blocks South on the other pedestrian street, Tianjin Jie, Dalian's original market street. Tianjin is about 1500 meters long, starts at the Train Station and winds through several streets and plazas, ending, fortunately enough, about 1 block from my apartment. There is also a Japanese Street, fairly recent, in honor of the Japanese occupation from 1905 to 1945. It's about 2 kilometers up the hill, a nice place during mild weather, with its own similar commercial activities, but it's not nearly the tourist success that Russian Street has become.
Streets are very friendly, clean, loud, and diverse. Not many police on the street, though you can find them at busy intersections and bus stops. At the less crowded bus stops, you can often find attendants who watch the action, help with fares, and give directions. And every block has its street sweeper, who will help or call for help if there is any incident. Several locations around downtown are given over for cards and mahjong. Even in freezing weather, the card games continue. Traffic seems steady throughout the day on all streets, never seems to peak or ebb dramatically, then dies out completely after about 11PM. Trolleys and market traffic start up again at about 5AM.