Review #2: Shanghai

Location Entrance to Shanghai Old Town

In December I was lucky enough to find myself in Shanghai for a few days. This was my first time in China, and I was excited to visit this bustling, burgeoning metropolis. Naturally, given China’s historical relationship with the bicycle, my top priority there was finding a bike and going for a spin.

Though the hotel concierge seemed perplexed at the idea, we finally got in touch with China Cycle Tours and set up a four-hour tour of the city. Man, what a treat!

It was a beautiful day (if you don’t mind a bit of smog in the air), the guide was knowledgeable and fluent in English (lucky for me!), and I was the only one crazy smart enough to sign up for the tour that day: does it get any better?

We toured through the French Concession, into the Old Town, across Garden Bridge, near Huangpu River, to the Creative Industrial Park, the Birds & Insects Market, and more.

As with many things, the Shanghainese approach to cycling and infrastructure is different from ours. There’s much we could learn from them.

This is the first installment on Shanghai; in the coming days I will talk about sharing the streets, signage, parking, bike lanes, and elevated roads.

Sharing the Streets

A typical street in the French Concession

As is the case in most North American cities, Shanghai has arterial roads, neighbourhood streets, and motorways. As is not the case in most North American cities, there is room on the roads and streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists (including the riders of the immensely popular electric scooters). Sometimes the space is allocated by physical separation, sometimes by painted lines, and sometimes purely by social convention.

The photo above could be just about any street in the French Concession. We’ve got sidewalks on either side of the street and a couple of unmarked lanes on the street for bi-directional travel. We’ve also got dozens of bicycles parked on the sidewalks, leaving almost no room for pedestrians, so they simply walk on the street. It’s not ideal but it works.

It works because these people are sharing the street. I mean, actually sharing it. In the whole time I was in China I did not see a single person get upset because there was someone blocking his way on the street – not a motorist, not a cyclist, not a pedestrian, not anyone. And believe me, there were a lot of people blocking the ways. There seems to be a Law of the Street in Shanghai, and it goes like this:

  1. If you’re going along minding your own business and I’ve got room to go around you, I will.
  2. If we are on intersecting paths and I’m bigger than you (e.g., I’m in a car and you’re on a scooter) I’m going to honk my horn. That’s your warning to change your path so I don’t hit you. But don’t worry – I’m never going more than 10 km/hr regardless of my mode of transportation, so you’ll have time to react.

I wouldn’t advocate adopting this Law of the Street but there are some components we can learn from it.

I saw no road rage because nobody seemed to have a sense that they owned the street. Sure, some cyclists and motorists made noise in crowds in the hopes that a path would open up for them, but it wasn’t with a sense of entitlement so much as a sense of requesting. If the path didn’t open up, it’s time to get off the bicycle and walk.

Even car-to-car, there was no animosity shown. In North America, when we walk on a busy sidewalk we expect to be cut off by people going every which way and we don’t bat an eyelash when we need to go around a couple of people standing and admiring the shoes in the display, or a family walking slowly and talking to each other. But somehow, as soon as we get in our cars or hop on our bikes, everything changes: all of a sudden, if you’re not traveling with a purpose you are an obstacle to be derided. If you are going more slowly than me I take it as a personal offense. Why is that? Why does our mindset change when we get off our feet and onto our seats?

Looking towards Shanghai Old Town. Click to enlarge the panoramic view.

Next installment: signage!


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