Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rules of the Road?

I’ve had the opportunity to experience the streets of Shanghai from most perspectives—a car, a taxi, a bike and on foot (no bus rides, yet). I think the best way to describe the movement of people around this city is contained chaos.

I’ve lived in and visited a lot of cities, and street transportation in all of them is somewhat difficult and dangerous. They all have different challenges, but also redeeming qualities.

In Paris, the density of traffic, scooters and bikes was intense. However, everyone stopped on reds; not even a right turner. Everyone. You could bank on it. Bangkok, in contrast, was a good bit looser about the rules, but there was far less traffic.

In Hong Kong, traffic was very orderly and pedestrian flows tightly contained and very safe. However, there was simply no allowance made for bikes in most places, so few people used them, and as a result it was risky to be a cyclist.

In Shanghai, the challenges are clear. There are a lot of people getting around—23 million. Many of them now have cars, but loads of them are still riding bikes, motorcycles and scooters. I’ve even seen a few utilitarian pull-carts. And, of course, a lot of them are just walking.

But, the real problem is that all this traffic—four-wheeled, two-wheeled and two-footed (some four-footed, too*)—complies with no recognizable rules of the road. Sure, there are red lights, and almost all of the big vehicles stop at them, at least if they’re intending to go straight or left (if turning right, no one bothers to even slow down at the red before turning). Anything smaller than a car just ignores the color of the lights.

And, beyond stop lights, anything goes. Anything. When I first arrived, I assumed I’d eventually figure out some method to the madness. That among the criss-crossing cars and scooters, the bikes salmoning (running the wrong way) up the streets, the pedestrians stepping off the curb without looking, the motorcycles cruising along the sidewalks, the persistent, often inexplicable honking—that among the chaos I could discern the logic that makes it all work.

Unfortunately, I think it would be a stretch to describe what I’ve seen as logical or methodical. But, there are some patterns, and it is definitely helpful to know the patterns.

First, everyone is completely and utterly selfish on the streets. There are no courtesies. No pleasantries. No polite margins of space, safety or even decency. If you can get an advantage somehow, you take it. Space in front of that scooter at a red light? Cut in front of him. In a car and want to turn through a stream of bikes? Do it, you’re bigger and they’ll have to move.

That leads to a second point: might makes right. The bigger, heavier object always has the right of way. This, of course, leaves pedestrians at the bottom of the food chain. Crossing the street can be tricky, because you get zero respect. You can be halfway across a crosswalk for which you have a green walk signal, and a car will turn the corner and come right at you with the full expectation you will get out of the way because you don’t want to die. You have to look both ways, multiple times, all the way across the street. Sprinting is common.

Truck vs. Scooter vs. Electric Bike.  Notice the pedestrian is staying out of it.

On the other hand, there is a sly game that gets played, too. It comes from the recognition that the bigger objects don’t really want to be responsible for the destruction of the smaller objects. So, if you don’t make eye contact with that driver, he will probably not hit you. If you look, he’ll assume you’ll get out of the way. But, you take your chances if you don’t look. Maybe he can’t slow down in time. Maybe he doesn’t see you.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the Shainghainese are not risk averse, and so they frequently take those chances. So, when cycling I’ve had a number of people roll out of a side street on a bike or scooter into the bike lane right in front of me without even looking. Even pedestrians, if they are brave enough, can press their advantage. And they often do. (The sprinting is mainly by us; the Chinese rarely break from a casual stride crossing the street.)

The one element of the system that allows it to function is its predictability. Everyone assumes everyone else will be completely selfish. And, remarkably, no one gets offended. I still can’t get over that part. I’m constantly thinking that I shouldn’t do this or that, it would be rude. Or my inner stickler yells obscenities (in my mind, so far) at the discourteous transgressions of others.

This fine pedestrian has inconvenienced an entire block of morning commuters, who remain nonplussed.

The redeeming qualities of the streets of Shanghai are harder to identify. The only ones that comes to mind are the allowances made for urban cycling. There are clean, wide, well-paved bike lanes just about everywhere. Often, they’re segregated from the roadway by fencing. (Of course, we cyclists have to share them with the electric bikes and scooters. And often pedestrians. And often scooters going the wrong way.)

Also great is the dedicated green left-turn arrow for bikes/scooters. This allows cyclists to make a left turn at a major intersection from the safety of the bike lane on the far right side, without any other traffic in the intersection (well, usually no other traffic, at least when the turning bikes have a critical mass).

Beyond that, there’s not much. The reality is that it’s a tough city to get around in, and it requires constant vigilance, especially on foot. But, I’ve come to realize that to navigate like a local, I just need to go with the flow. Or cut off the flow. Whatever’s best for me.

* There are a number of apparently feral dogs—or perhaps they are just not controlled (or bathed) by their owners. These pups show amazing street smarts, navigating street crossings with aplomb. Of course, they may just be the smart ones left after the herd got thinned…


  1. And we think our citizens are rude?? You need eyes in back of your head to be safe. Forget looking both ways before crossing the street, its look at least 4 ways or more. One more thing to appreciate about our cities. Take care - Mom

  2. Sounds like you take risks just....you must be going cross-eyed trying to be safe! Hope all is well.