Traffic in Shanghai and Beijing, and presumably in all overcrowded megacities in China, is dangerous, maddening, frightening, bordering on death- defying. Due to lax enforcement, traffic laws are little more than suggestions and lanes no more than distracting lines on the street. The only regulator of traffic seems to be stop lights but motorscooters, bicycles, and right-hand turners don’t even seem to heed the lights. And honestly, I often walk when the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign is lit.
With scooters and bikes swerving in and out of traffic and taxis stopping without warning, one begins to develop respect for the drivers who avoid crashes and become awed by their awareness and responsiveness. Though seeing accidents is Shanghai seems rare, China actually has a very high accident rate as a whole. The rate sounds low when compared with the US; however, when compared with the US’s rate as a per car ratio, China actually has a serious accident rate that is 10-times(!) that of the U.S.
For pedestrians, it isn’t any easier. As bikes and motorscooters come around the corner at full speed, even though they have a red light, with the only warning being another loud noise, its pedestrians beware. Sidewalks aren’t safe either as bikes and motorscooters and 3-wheeled carts often think the sidewalk is there highway. They also zip in and out of seemingly abandoned driveways and alleyways that cut across sidewalks. Though most major intersections have crosswalks and indicator signals, again, these are merely suggestions.
When, as a pedestrian, facing the onslaught of vehicles, I asked my Shanghainese friend, how do you tell whose turn it is? Her perfectly serious response, “Whoever has more power.” I laughed, thinking that’s a scary way to decide, not to mention if that’s seriously true, pedestrians would never get anywhere (which, of course, is not the case). So we discuss it and eventually decide whoever goes is whoever dares to go. Of course, taxis can’t purposely run down pedestrians and pedestrians don’t willingly walk in front of a speeding taxi. So ultimately it comes down to whoever dares to go in the expectation the other is less aggressive and so will avoid a collision. It took me about 2 weeks of being in Shanghai before I was able to leave my apartment without expecting to die every time I crossed the street. Needless to say, the fear of Shanghai traffic is not easily overcome.
In many ways the traffic (at least in SH & BJ) is a microcosm of Chinese culture itself. Its selfish, aggressive, impatient, high-pressure, and defiant of laws and regulations in the absence of enforcement. Is this an adolescent phase in Chinese culture (transitional period in China’s traffic/driving development) or this a permanent characteristic of Chinese society (destiny of China’s driving conditions due to lack of planning)? ?