By foot, bike, bus, and … traveling in Shanghai

17 years ago

To the editor:
I have managed to ride through the traffic of Shanghai and still have tales to tell. One soon learns not to be a backseat driver in this city of 19 million people. The basic rule of thumb here is that if there is room to get a sheet of paper between two vehicles it is not crowded!
    Taxis are a new experience for me. Until the last two years I had almost always had my own car or at least the use of one. A year ago I stepped the wrong way on a step and ended up with a nice case of torn ligaments. On the advice of the physicians I began to take  taxis to where I needed to go. It was easier than taking a crowded bus and more importantly it allowed for the injury to heal. Now I have gone back to the busses and of course my bicycle.
While the Chinese consider themselves a third world country, at times they make gigantic leaps that make the United States look a little meager. Here in Shanghai, every form of public transportation is covered by one universal travel card. If I want to take a bus I can pay for the trip with a flick of my card. Same card also works on the taxis, ferries, trains, and subways in the city. By the end of the year, the entire southern region will be unified with transit card terminals on all major public transit units. I can even use the card to buy McDonalds meals. Try doing this in the U.S.!
When you take a taxi here in the city, you are a VIP. The sole job of the driver is to get you to your location and not to get any scratches on his car. If you have any qualms about other people’s driving it is best to walk or at least close your eyes. Oh there are accidents and such but for the most part if you just sit back and relax, the driver will see to it that he gets you there.
Any open space is considered fair. Traffic can pass on the right, left and if necessary over the top. (That last is slightly sarcastic since the car top is not strong enough for even a walker.) You can be on foot in the middle of one of the largest busiest 15-lane intersections and still walk across with aplomb. You can ride your bicycle through the same maze and if you have little regard for your safety you will arrive at your destination only a little flushed.
I soon learned the art of the honk. Most of the time the honk is not intended to be rude. Rather it is a polite way to say move aside I need to get through. A short burst is a friendly, “Excuse me!” a slightly longer burst is a bit more forceful. But then there are the scourge of modern China. The old Chinese bicyclist.
My bicycle is now a Hasa brand one. A dark, reddish brown mountain bike complete with dual wire panniers, and 21 speeds. A slightly bit over powered for most Chinese but one which can carry my six foot, 13 inch frame with relative comfort. Early in the morning with no traffic I can manage a top speed of 18 miles per hour! But speed is not the most dangerous thing. The most dangerous person on two wheels is the Chinese rider on a flimsy contraption with rusted wheels, a single gear and all the time in the world.
Traffic will be at its peak and a Chinese person will get on this simple device, head for the busiest intersection and then proceed with a long site seeing jaunt. Behind him will be a couple of busses with no air conditioning and packed to the rafters with people. While smoking a cigarette and texting some friend, the driver of said two wheeled contrivance will also be going at less than 1/2 kilometer an hour in the path of the bus. It  does not matter. The bus driver will lean on  the horn and still the slow poke will meander down the middle of the street. And of course, the slowness of the pace means that pedestrians can come into the path of the bus, cross it and come back for a second try. Even a fully uniformed traffic officer with flashing lights is unable to persuade said citizen to move his large rump out of the way.
Taxi drivers do their best to avoid streets with large bike populations or to leave room for the bicycle to enter traffic. They know better.
Still, it is exciting to go whizzing along and try to avoid all the obstacles from the well-aimed, phlegmy, projectile; to the pedestrian who steps into the middle of the street and expects you to avoid him; or the vendor who sets up his display to encompass all the territory of the sidewalk and then some.
Two wheels spinning and you are only slightly in control. Best to take a taxi, close your eyes and relax. You’ll get there in one piece.