Friday, September 3, 2010
To properly enjoy the traffic in Shanghai, it helps if you are a die-hard roller coaster fan, which I am. Let's start with the taxis. They are very cheap, about $2.00 for a short ride, maybe $4.00 if you're really going somewhere (30 minutes or so). We have ridden with cabbies who got lost a couple of times, and the driver turned off the meter both times, which was very impressive to me. I was in a cab in Louisville and we got lost in Cherokee Park, an easy thing to do, but believe me, the ride was full fare even on the scenic route. While there are traffic laws in Shanghai, they are taken more as suggestions, so trips really feel like a giant game of chicken, and the cabbies are often the boldest drivers on the road, even against buses and delivery trucks. I like to sit behind the driver, because you really get the best view of what is coming, especially the creative lane changes and mergers. Horns honk in abundance here, so my genteel friends from the South should probably bring earplugs for their visits. I gasped a lot in the first couple of weeks, but now I tend to laugh more and give the cabbie encouragement where I can.
You can also use the buses, which we haven't tried, but many of our colleagues swear by them, or the subways, which we use with pleasure. Our neighborhood subway line (Line 10) is the newest in the rapidly expanding system, which means that it is the cleanest, best air-conditioned and most high-tech. While waiting for a train, which comes every five to six minutes on the weekdays and twelve minutes at most on a weekend, we are entertained by video feeds of Expo commercials, sports highlights (a surprising amount of volleyball lately), or news. We have tried some transfers to other lines, but still have a lot of work to do in that area, as the maps are obsolete almost as soon as they are printed. We found our English map underneath our sofa, and it's not bad.
Another transportation option is the scooter or bicycle (electric or otherwise). These vehicles have a special lane at the edge of all major roads, one way with that side of traffic. Most of the time they all go that direction, but this lane can be obstructed by someone who decides to ride opposite traffic, a four wheeled vehicle that decides to park (usually quite suddenly), or (God help 'em) a cabbie who is tired of sitting in traffic and uses the two-wheeled lane instead. Again, horns are honked with great enthusiasm, and absolutely every human-powered bike takes special pride in having the squeakiest brakes possible so that you know that you have offended the rider by walking too slowly in front of him. The really impressive bikes have giant loads of all sorts of material that dwarf the rider and make the vehicle slightly more dangerous than a car, mainly because the brakes probably aren't as good.
Now we come to the lowly pedestrian, farthest down on the transportation food chain. The sidewalks are beautiful, tree-lined and broad, but that only makes them more convenient for the bikes and scooters, who are trying to avoid the cars and cabs in their lane. We have seen one car driving on the sidewalk, but usually cars are just parked there. Nevertheless, the sidewalks are the best place to see your neighbors out relaxing, sitting on various blankets or other ground cover, entertaining the preschoolers and babies. If you are walking late enough at night, you will also see people sleeping beneath the huge trees, as it's pretty hot inside at this time of year.
Of course, you can't walk down these beautiful boulevards too far before you have to cross a road. One of our friends who lived in China says she is only afraid of two things here: using a public toilet, and crossing the road. The intersections are governed somewhat by traffic lights, but again, these are merely suggestions and don't always apply depending on the type of traffic that is approaching. Government or police cars are completely immune to traffic laws and lights, and the hapless pedestrian has to watch out for right hand turns, because those are lawful regardless of the light color. Seriously, they don't even slow down, and don't forget, you have two lanes of turners, the cars and the bikes/scooters. The new arrival book suggests that you just cross when you think you can, and don't take too much time. I start just off the curb, move quickly through whatever two-wheeled traffic is coming (figuring that my large bulk will scare them off a bit), then stand at the slight curb to watch the four-wheeled traffic. If the road looks clear, I book it across, regardless of the color of the light or the pedestrian signal, although I do look behind for potential left turners from the intersecting road, because they can take you out and you never see them. I'm pretty sure a lot of the locals are laughing quietly at me, but I'm getting good at this. If you are good at the video game "Frogger," you're probably ready to cross a Chinese street.
Our neighborhood is fairly well off, and we see a startling (for us) number of very expensive cars; Audi, BMW, Mercedes, a Bentley, and even a lovely Rolls on frequent occasions. They tend to be black, perhaps because the earliest cars on the road were government cars and they were black. In all this controlled chaos, we have seen only one accident so far. A delivery truck had rear-ended a cab (most of the good cabs are VW sedans - not Beetles) on Hongqiao Road and the two drivers were out discussing the matter while the rest of traffic darted around them, honking angrily. Although the accident occurred right in front of a police station, the police were not involved, and after a lively discussion, the cab driver picked up his back bumper, somehow stuck it back onto the rear of the cab, and they both drove off.
Moral of the Chinese transportation story: Mao helps those who help themselves.