Monday, August 22, 2005

Trying to Cross the Road in Shanghai

Back on the mean streets of Oakland, I have a friend who refuses to cross the street unless it's on a green light. I think about this in Shanghai - how could you get anywhere, when the roads look like this?

There's a few key elements the untrained eye might gloss over. First, the sidewalk is blocked off by contruction - which is pretty much on par for Shanghai. Second, the street here is not one way, yet bikes and pedestrians are on both left and right side of the road. Third, there's a truck in the background, headed towards the camera, which will take over almost the entire road.

Lanes are a fluid concept in Shanghai, and how could they not be, between all the road construction, and the freight being carried down the street, both by old-time bicycle crates, or by push-carts. Either can get enormous to the point that you can't believe they can be moved.

More annoying is the tendency of businesses to set up shop on the sidewalk, blocking off pedestrians. Or, the tendency of both bicycles and scooters to ride on the sidewalk. You'd like to imagine the sidewalks as a safe zone where you don't have to worry about getting run over.

There's a certain algebra to the pedestrian traffic: one car is worth seven or eight people. So if cars aren't willing to yield you the right to cross the road, bunch up with a small gang of people and the cars will be forced to yield. Bicycles operate outside these rules. For the most part they won't stop or even slow down for a right turn on a red, and are perfectly willing to cut in front of you. You just have to wait for a moment when there aren't any bicycles around, and then cross. In some parts of town, this can involve a lot of waiting.

But I don't want to imply all Shanghai is like this. In many newer parts of town, streets are wider and more-or-less car dominated, just like in the US. And even in the older parts of town, there are main roads strictly for the cars - which tend to be busses or taxis. The taxis are all Volkswagens, and about half the cars on the road are VWs or Audis - they have a big factory, right in Shanghai.

I hope I'm not sounding negative - I really enjoy and am bemused by the perpetual game of chicken that is getting around in the former International Concession (where I'm now staying). Adding to the charm is the hustling around you, whether from sidewalk vendors or from the numerous small shops which line the streets. But I'll admit, the wider tree-lined streets of the former French Concession are probably more to most people's tastes. While they're crowded, you might even say it's pleasant to walk around.

And big ups to the sister, for mailing a phone-picture of a Night Blooming Cereus, in bloom! It's been too long since I've seen one, plus it's a cool picture, so I'll link it up. They don't have these in Shanghai but it would be great if they did.

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