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The Tragedy of Traffic, or, China is Crowded

September 7, 2010

The line for the up escalator one weekday morning, leaving the Shanghai Stadium metro stop. Chinese people hate stairs. (Rick is on the far right in the blue shirt.)

Oh so very, very crowded. But you don’t understand just what this means until you’ve lived in China, used the public transportation, and attempted life as a pedestrian.

Traffic hazards are everywhere, especially for a person who comes from a nation where there are traffic laws that are enforced, and where motorcycles and mopeds are rather rare, like myself. You aren’t prepared for what’s about to hit you.

Lately, I’ve been dealing with the dangers of the subway during rush hour. Now, take the metro during the afternoon on a weekday, and it’s wonderful: air conditioned, clean, pretty smooth, quiet, easy to navigate. It’s beautifully designed.

Take the metro during rush hour and prepare to FIGHT. Elbows everywhere. People crammed in like sardines. I’ll have to record a video when I have a flipcam again (old one lost during BackpackGate, unfortunately). It’s hellish. There’s still air conditioning, but you don’t feel it when some sweaty man’s body is pressed up against yours.

And getting off at your stop? Be prepared to squish and shove your way up near the doors. If the people  in front of you aren’t getting off, no way you’re getting off without some serious elbow work. You have to stop worrying about common courtesy and just PUSH.

It’s not pleasant. There are just so, so many people. Suddenly, I understand the one-child policy.

Then there’s the pedestrian part of your journey. Let me just say, never has my life been more threatened than when I walk the streets of Shanghai.

Bikes lined up along the side of a building near my office on the Bund. Behind the bikes are many life-endangering mopeds and motorcycles.

On the sidewalk, it’s pretty bad. Sidewalks are narrow. There are already lots and lots of pedestrians, often wielding umbrellas with dangerously sharp tips. Then, add the bikes, so many bikes. Although there are often bike lanes on the street, most bike riders prefer to stick the sidewalk and dodge the pedestrians. Bikes frequently almost run right into me. I have perfected the avoidance techniques of sidestepping, jumping, and leaning.

But then there are the mopeds. Oh, the mopeds, motorcycles, two-wheeled contraptions. How I want them all to die. These devils are everwhere. They loooove to speed along a crowded sidewalk honking their damn horns over and over and over.

The most dangerous part of being a pedestrian in a Chinese city is crossing the street. Sure, there are traffic lights and crosswalks. A lot of crosswalks even have the red man and green man to signal when it’s supposedly “safe” for pedestrians to cross the street.

But NOOOOO, it is NOT safe, never ever safe, to cross the street.

First of all, the bikes and mopeds/motorcycles never obey traffic lights. They do whatever they want. Add in other wheely contraptions, like the one pictured below, and you have plenty of traffic-light ignoring life-threats. You must always be on guard. And they can come out of nowhere. They can be on any part of the street, and coming from any direction.

Some poor man is hauling all that stuff on his three-wheeled cart. A very common sight in Shanghai. Note the poor pedestrian on the right of him about to get pushed aside by the bicycle coming up behind.

But the very worst part is that cars and buses do NOT obey normal traffic laws. Whatever the actual “law” on the books is, cars and busses have the right of way here.

That means even when the street signal is green for pedestrians, cars or bussses turning right or left will still roll along, honking their horns, NOT slowing down, and they will make their turn whether or not it results in a petty human casualty. I can’t tell you how frightening this is.

The other day, I saw two pedestrians (both Chinese) very nearly get hit by a bus making a left turn, even though the little walk man was green. I gasped in horror. The Chinese pedestrians safe on the sidewalk pointed and laughed.

The crowds get to me sometimes, but the dangerous traffic is extremely frustrating and frightening. I don’t know why China doesn’t enforce traffic laws. They could make a bundle. Especially on people who ride mopeds while holding their small children. So, so dangerous.

I have a feeling when the death-toll due to traffic climbs high enough, the government will do something about it. Until then, I’m playing a real-life game of Frogger on a daily basis.

At least Shanghai has a low crime rate.

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