How to Survive on Your Feet in Shanghai

Walking in Shanghai is one of the best ways to see this glorious, dirty, beautiful city.

Walking in Shanghai is also a good way to get yourself maimed or killed.

When it comes to modes of transportation, walking is at the bottom of the food chain here. While walking the streets of Shanghai you will have several near-death experiences every day. Crossing streets requires whipping your head from side-to-side, looking in both directions, no matter which direction traffic is supposed to be coming from.

As far as I can tell, here is how vehicular and pedestrian traffic is ranked, from lowest to highest. Fee free to disagree with me or offer amendments.

6) Pedestrians – No one stops for you, even if you are in a pedestrian crossing and you have the green light to walk. I’ve yanked my kids out of harms’ way several times from taxis, cars, and scooters. (Though last night, an older woman on a scooter actually slowed down and stopped for us, let us cross the street, and then went on. That’s the only time this has happened.)

Once, Meredith pulled her hand out of my wife’s hand in the middle of a crosswalk and went ahead toward the other side. Stephanie screamed at her. Meredith didn’t see the scooter coming from the opposite direction in the scooter lane and was nearly hit. She froze once she saw it and began to cry. The scooter driver had come to a stop and then swerved around. We reached the sidewalk together and Meredith was still in tears.

It’s shit like this that forces me to hold on to each child’s wrist when crossing. Though Henry has a pretty good handle on how deadly it can be to cross a street in Shanghai. He says that when he gets back to Michigan, street crossing is going to be easy.

5) Cars – This includes taxis. They will try to ram you to get you the hell out of their way while you are in a crosswalk. But they have no way to intimidate a mass of bicycles and scooters.

4) Bicycles – They ride on sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks, and in the scooter/bicycle lanes. Riders often ignore street signals. On every other block there is a bicycle repair shop (sometimes a shop or nothing more than a man under an umbrella with a tool bench). So regardless of where your bike breaks down, you can get always your flat tire patched or rims bent back into shape fairly quickly. Bikes are parked on sidewalks in designated areas.

3) Trucks and vans – These are smaller versions than their American cousins, but nonetheless have priority because they deliver goods to all the stores and shops in the city.

One early morning, while coming back from a run, I was walking on the sidewalk toward our hotel when I heard a honk behind me. I turned and saw a small delivery van coming at me. I moved out of the way, up some steps in front of a store, and watched as the van drove up the sidewalk and stopped in front of a shop. The driver got out and proceeded to unload several packages from the van and placed them in front of the doors to a store, then started talking to the store’s proprietor.

2) Buses – They play chicken with all other vehicles, including trucks, and win more often than not. The tourist versions make U-turns with abandon.

However, buses do not win a game of chicken against a pack of scooters. Nothing wins against a pack of scooters. Where other vehicles scatter at the impending hit of a bus, the scooters don’t. It’s the bus that comes to a stop.

1) Scooters – They can go anywhere: streets, scooter/bicycle lanes, pedestrian crosswalks, and sidewalks. As far as I can tell, there is not a single “Rule of the Road” that applies to them.

Their riders ignore all street signals. At night, no matter how dark, they don’t even use their headlights. You can be in a crosswalk, heading to the other side, waiting for the scooter to go by when suddenly the scooter turns in the crosswalk, weaving in-between pedestrians.

Every block or so there is a small scooter repair shop with only enough space inside for parts and tools. All repairs are done using the sidewalk as the work area. Be prepared to walk on the street (the scooter/bicycle lane) to get around the repair work. They are are parked along with bicycles on sidewalks.

Scooters are often very quiet. These are not the loud, black-fume-belching, two-stroke kind. In Shanghai they are overwhelmingly electric. It’s almost eery watching them shoot by without a sound carrying a family of four.

If you keep this hierarchy in mind, you’ll do just fine while exploring the city.


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