Sunday, July 24, 2011

Getting Around Shanghai--Or, Why You're Only Out of Mortal Danger If You Stay at Home

In a city of 20 million, there's bound to be a teeny tiny bit of traffic congestion on the streets. The roads are a conglomeration of different transportation vehicles: cars, of course; public buses with antenna-like side mirrors that reach down from the roof and thus remind me of antennae; waves of people on scooters (which are mini-motorcycles, or Vespas, I guess) with a silver container strapped on the back that I thought was either the gas tank or a super-sized lunchbox, but is actually just a general carry-all; countless people on rickety cheap bikes (if you have a nice bike, it WILL get stolen); and pedestrians and taxis weaving through them all. It makes a lot of sense to take public transportation or ride something smaller and more nimble in Asian cities, where a whole bunch of people live in the same space and are moving in all different directions.

The super-busy intersection outside my apartment!
But what amuses--and partially terrifies--me is how traffic laws in Shanghai are taken as kind of suggestions instead of, well, laws. It's common to have cars zooming through intersections 5, 7, or even 10 seconds after the light has turned red. Shocking if you're on foot and three steps out onto the road before you see that five cars are bearing down on you. Scooterists in particular are fond of driving the wrong direction in the unofficial two-wheeled vehicle lane.

All these various vehicles and people do an astonishing sort of dance around one another on the streets and even sidewalks. A bus will barrel down a street, taking the place on the road where taxis, bikers, and pedestrians seem to have been just milliseconds before. And then, a few seconds later, the bus will make a seemingly impossible dodge around three taxis and 5 two-wheeled vehicles approaching and weaving through the intersection from all different directions. I'd be impressed at the deft way in which the bus drivers handle their large vehicles and the almost total nonexistence of accidents if I weren't on the bus and being thrown back and forth by its jerky motion.

The intersection near my office (also busy, of course).
The Shanghainese also LOVE to honk. They honk at people before them at intersections who don't get moving approximately a quarter of a second after the light turns green. They honk at drivers in the lane next to them who they think are going to try and merge. They honk at pedestrians crossing the road 20 meters before them. They honk at you if they're trying to turn left and you're crossing the street and technically have the right of way. They honk when other people are honking, which leads to a whole gaggle of honks that go on and on for about 20 seconds.

(Incidentally, as I'm getting used to the metric system here, I'm quite grateful that at least the numeric and time measurement systems are universalized. Can you imagine if time is measured differently depending on which country you go to?)

The other thing about honking is that it can occur at any time of night or day. There is a bit of a lull between 2-5am (thank God), but all bets are off as soon as the sun rises at 5am, which in Shanghai means that the sky gets lighter but you don't typically actually see the sun, due to the perpetual smog. Whenever I'm awakened at 5:30 in the morning by the sound of people blaring their horns outside, I think about how in New York you get fined for honking, and whether or not it'd be possible to institute something similar here.

From what I can see, there is no such thing as "right of way" or "yield" in Shanghai. If you try to yield at every opportunity in which the Western world would consider it appropriate to yield, it'll take you three times as long to get to your destination. So no one yields, and the journey is a little more chaotic and life-threatening than it has to be, and everyone gets to their destinations in the relatively same amount of time.

The JC Mandarin, a high-end hotel, on Nanjing West Road, the street near my office.
Shanghai Centre on Nanjing West Road. Super high-end and classy hotel/shops. Some Hong Kong actor apparently arrived there when I was getting my lunch there the other day.


  1. Oh, guess what I said on Twitter earlier is null. You left already! How did I miss that? Hope you're enjoying it so far. Stay safe...that traffic sounds SCARY!!!

  2. Even though the traffic sounds life-threatening (and fracking loud, too,) it still seems like a nice place to visit.

    I say visit because of the smog. As a city it has a certain beauty about it, and it reminds me of NY and other places with the big ads and random parks/things. It just sounds like a hard place to live in when you're not used to such an environment.

    I'm glad you're surviving, though, and I hope the job goes smashingly.

  3. I'm glad you commented on the taxi/traffic over there, I think it's one of the things I remember most distinctly. Yes, those bus drivers are talented! I took a lot of taxis and I'm amazed by how close to collisions we consistently got, but never actually hit :p and the horns! I went to taiwan right after my visit and it was SO different. Lovely post, good luck =)

  4. I've been to that Shanghai Centre. Shanghai is a great place!

  5. My husband and I visited China this spring and were so amazed at the traffic. We thought it was a very intricate dance.

  6. It's interesting to read this now because the first and only time I've been to Shanghai was back in like 2000. While I liked it, I remember also being fascinated but more terrified of the traffic!

  7. *snicker* This sounds almost exactly like downtown Montreal. I kid you not. I hate the disregard for traffic laws here so I don't think I will be visiting you any time soon lest I end up rampaging through the streets on a murdering spree. ;)

  8. I've been to that Shanghai Center. Shanghai is a fantastic place!


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