Written by Rebekkah Mallicoat, (University of Texas at Austin) Student Correspondent CET Shanghai, Summer 2018
If you are an American traveling to Shanghai, I can guarantee you that Shanghai will be the biggest city you have ever (and possibly will ever) see. The CET Shanghai staff is the most capable bunch of people I have ever met, and part of their careful shepherding of our first few days in this radical new environment included extensive discussions on various safety concerns given the unique nature of Shanghai city life. Among the topics, and the most interesting in my view, was the discussion on Crossing the Road.
This is a thing in Shanghai. Whatever you think you know about crossing the street, forget it. In America, you wait for the crosswalk light, you cross while drivers wait patiently, and you never look back. In Shanghai, the first lesson they gave us was “Wait for other people to start walking. It sounds bad, but if someone is gonna get hit don’t let it be you.”
That sounds brutal, of course, but setting out on our walking tour of nearby attractions we learned what they meant. The roads are not only packed full of every kind of car, they are also covered with electric motorbikes and bicycles that totally disregard lanes, directions, and straight lines. They veer over sidewalks at breakneck speeds, zoom across temporarily empty intersections, and jump curbs with such frequency that it takes less than an hour to really understand the lawless mentality under which they operate.
In order to survive crossing the street with all of your limbs intact, one must follow a few simple rules:
Rule 1: DO NOT RUN. Always maintain a constant speed. It is important not to do something unexpected.
Rule 2: Look every possible way before you cross. Forget the idea that an object may come from only two directions. It does not apply in metropolitan China.
Rule 3: Trust the drivers.
These rules may seem counter-intuitive, at least the first and third rules. However, I soon realized something about the drivers in China. Having observed the impressive courage of elderly Chinese women who crossed the road without checking at all for lethal objects, I began to notice a striking lack of anxiety in this hectic traffic. While there is often a great deal of honking, it seems unrelated to injured feelings but is used instead as a method of communication. The horn is essentially saying “I’m right here even though you can’t see me.”
There seems to exist a Contract between the cars and the bikes and the motorcycles and the pedestrians – I see you, you see me, we know how to walk/drive, and we aren’t trying to get into an accident today.
In America, there is a pretty uniform following of traffic rules and the system gets most people from point A to point B with a little help from the fleet of traffic patrol cops that monitor traffic. So far, in the 4 weeks I have been in China, I have seen two police cars on the road in total.
Somehow, with this flexible system of traffic “guidelines” and little oversight, the Shanghai method seems not only as effective, but certainly more interesting, and more rewarding for the enterprising and creative drivers. The food delivery industry is an excellent case in point. Observing this difference provides a glimpse into the fundamentally different cultures that exist in the East and in the West.