Reasons of Bad Traffic in Shanghai

What are the reasons of bad traffic in Shanghai?

I believe among all the hundreds of reasons people can think of, “many people don’t know how to drive” is one – may be not the major one.

Personally, I follow the traffic rule much more after I learnt to drive. Why?

1) I started to understand how dangerous jaywalking is.

2) I started to learn traffic rules

3) I understand much better how annoying it is to stand in the middle of the road and slow down cars.

Let me explain these one by one.

I Started to Understand How Dangerous Jaywalking is

To be honest, not everyone understand it, including me 3 years ago.

Since majority of people in China don’t drive and don’t know how to drive, and never have the experience of sitting in the driver’s seat to look at the road from that angle, driving is basically a mysterious skill. Before I learnt to drive, I just take it for granted that the drivers can see EVERYTHING, and they can stop the car at ANYTIME, and they have 100% skill set to avoid hitting anyone.

For example, people think it is very easy to stop the car running at 60 km / hour within 10 meters of distance. This is wrong perception.

After I learnt to drive, I started to understand there are certain angles that I completely cannot see when I drive – the blind area; there are certain circumstances (like someone in the dark at night) that drivers barely see; there are many cases that it is almost impossible for the car to stop.

Unfortunately, any drivers know that, but majority of people don’t know it.

I Started to Learn Traffic Rules

There are many traffic rules. However, I first know it only after I pass the driver’s exam. When to walk and when not to walk? Many people don’t know. I still know a lot of people who firmly believe the red light is only for motors, and not for bikes or pedestrians.

How Inconvenience it is

Jaywalking or things like this is not only dangerous, but also troublesome. When I drive, I saw so many people standing in the middle of the street, waiting to continue walking.

Before someone learns to drive, they think it is perfect OK. “All those cars, just go – I won’t move!” However, drivers MUST slow down just in case. This slows down the traffic and bring chaos.

These are some examples of the difference between driver and a non-driver. I believe drivers are better pedestrians after they learn how car and traffic works.

In Shanghai, for example, the percentage of drivers are too small, and it is one reason for the chaos of traffic. (Well, as I said, I don’t think it is the major reason though).

26 thoughts on “Reasons of Bad Traffic in Shanghai

  1. If I compare the traffic in Shanghai with the traffic in “my” country, Germany, I can see a lot of differences:

    1. Punishment is way too soft. In Germany you get your licence taken away quite simply if you mess with the traffic rules. In China, you pay 100 kuai or something and that’s it. The police needs to be MUCH stricter!

    2. I don’t know how difficult the driving test is, to get the licence, but it’s quite obvious that it needs to be much harder. Sometimes I see drivers where I think they just bought the licence without any training!

    3. No Respect. This is the worst part. Maybe because China has the one child policy the people are all a bit spoiled, but in the Shanghai traffic nobody respects each other, everyone wants to be first, no matter what. That’s so horrible. Instead of waiting a minute and leaving the traffic flowing, people just turn the cars around in the middle of the road, not caring that they mess up the traffic completely. That’s so horrible.

    But I guess as time goes by this will get much better. Who knows.

  2. I visit Shanghai every month. The only way to improve traffic condition in Shanghai is for all to respect the

    traffic light at all traffic junctions. If nobody respect the traffic lights – why have traffic lights in the first place.

    Pedestrains dont have right of way even the green light is in their favor. Drivers simply just drive on and not care about

    the pedestrain. This is absurd and irresponsible of the drivers. You can also notice that some drivers stopped at traffic lights and some simply drive on. So really is a big mess. If nothing is done to educate the people, Shanghai will be a joke modern city. Frankly speaking , Shanghai is very modern but the software is still long way to match the modern cities in other parts of the world.

    Go and visit Singapore and you know how far Shangahi is compared to a modern city.

    Good luck and cheers.


  3. Other “Major” reasons that Shanghai’s traffic is bad:

    1.Bad traffic law enforcement. People do all kinds of crazy things(runing red light, speeding, passing cars when making left/right turns, cutting in front of the incoming traffic when making left turns, using far light in the city) without the fear of being caught.

    2.Bad drivers caused by bad traffic law enforcement.

    3.Bad road signs. The road signs only marks road name and its destination but not direction. It is only helpful for the locals who are familiar with all the roads, bridges, destinations. It is impossible for a driver from outside Shanghai to navigate just with a map. Just give you an example, Driving from Luoshanglu(罗山路) to A20, the sigh says(right A20 Xinzhuang(莘庄); straight A20 Pudong Airport). A better sign would be right A20 west, Xinzhuang(莘庄); straight A20 east, Pudong Airport.

    4.Bad traffic lines on the road. For example, dedicated left turn lane, while there is no left turn signal light, causing straight going lanes to narrow and bend at the intersection.

  4. Why in China the cars do not respect the passage of zebras ? I am from a country in Europe where cars usuallly stop when the pedestrian are crossing one zebra and I really get anoyed becuase of this behaviour. I really do not get used to it, i do not want to be educated like this i want to educate drivers to change themselves. Maybe one day i will be run over or involved in a fight because of this. It really makes me piss off and sometimes i can not control my reaction. I now i am in China.I have two questions :

    First, and this could be answer by Jian Shuo -as he recently pass the examination- what the driving rules state about passage of zebras in China? Are they just for decoration of the street or it is the place where the pedestrian will cross and the cars have to stop if there is a pedestrian crossing it?. Who has preference cars or pedestrians?

    Second, why cars do not stop when a person is crossing? Person is not important? What about if and old person is crossing,why cars do not stop if chinese culture is very respectfull with old people? Can any chinese solve this mistery because is very contradictory?

    The same could be applied to the traffic lights but first lets make the zebra thing clear.

    Jian Shuo this topic of about the passage of zebra is related to the bad traffic (could be consider the bad traffic as a bad excuse for not taking care of the zebras ) but also could be a different one.

  5. Shanghai’s traffic is one of its worst nightmares. People blame it to the vast number of population, but I think there’s much to it. Again, being non-Shanghainese, I used to be told to “get out of China if you don’t like our traffic” if I complained. I don’t know how many locals have such mentality, but it’s not taken well by many foreigners.

    Aside from the good reasons given by Jianshuo and Jakob upstairs why there’re forever traffic gridlocks, I also think:

    1) The city ought to widen many of the one-way streets. As developers keep putting up high-rise buildings, many of the adjacent streets remain original. I presume many of the cureent 2-land one-way street used to be two-way streets perhaps 40-50 years ago. Do some math, if the city evicted the old residents who lived in 1-4 story dwellings, which means lower populations to 30+ story high buildings, commercial or residental, the populations swell exponentially, and I think the adjacent roads must be widened to accomondate the much increased traffic flow. I’m not an urban planner, but I can figure that out easily. In addition, many buildings don’thave enough parking space. In California, I know builders must set aside a set number of parking space for the building, which is included in the total buildable area. I know the city has to compensate the old residents either money or a new apartment when people are evicted. Could it be that the developers want to build as many units as possible because each square meter worths so much money, so instead of widening the streets would mean fewer units to sell and hence less profit. I think it’s the goverment’s job to tighten its ordinances for the builders. With one-way street, if one misses or past the building he wants to go to, the driver has to drive around blocks to get to where he wants to go to.

    2) Lacking of public parking structures especially with affordable charges. If I drove, which I didn’t, I would prefer to park my car within safe parking lots. I don’t know how many buidlings have affordable parking lots, from what I know, most drivers don’t want to park in structures that charges them 10 or 20 + RMB/hour. If average people’s pay is 5 yuan per hour, they are not going to park inside expensive places. You can’t blame them because how many Americans are willing to pay $12USD/per hour if that’s how much the average pay per hour.

    3) As Jianshuo mentioned, most pedestrians don’t know traffic rules in order not to jepodize themselves and incoming vehicles. It’s true a lot of people J-walk on SH streets. But I got something to say about this too. I used to get so mad at cars squeezing right in front of me when I walked on crosswalks with the pedestrian lights are on. Unless China’s traffic rule is that muc different, I believe when pedestrian lights go on, pedestrians have the right-of-way, and right-turn cars must yield to people first. I also think the government ought to use medias to educate peoples, drivers as well as pedestrians, how to drive and cross the streets. I know some people will say the goverment has done some work, but if the current traffic pattern relects people’s knowledge, I’ll say much much work is needed.

    4) Drivers should clear of intersections. So many intersections are filled with cars that hardly any or them can move.

    P.S. I moved to Taipei now. It’s amazing how well traffic light works here. One thing really impresses me: Pedestrians will ONLY cross the street when pedstrian lights flashes with a counter. Time allowed on the counter varies depending on how wide and how much traffic flows there are.

    Okay, I can elaborate more, but I guess I better stop and let some other folks comment.

  6. Apparently while I was composing my above long comment, a few other people also sent in theirs. I realized that after I pressed “post”. Interesting enough, they all mentioned the pedetrial light rules. I guess I wasn’t the only person who was aggrevated by the SH traffic.


  7. Dave and Jakob… related to your questions/opinions… this is my observation in Shanghai after staying here for a while.

    My reasons for this is:

    1. Shanghai has BAD traffic system. Doesn’t know how to coordinate traffic lights. For example, when you’re crossing the road using the zebra line, cars from other direction can still move towards your direction!

    2. Selfish and intolerance drivers. A friend told me these drivers want the walker to reckon their financial status, like “hey, look i have a car. Dare you come close… see you bone is harder or my metal (car) is harder.” Maybe this is from the autocratic ideology to show their “power”.

    3. Impatient pedestrian – they have no sense of how dangerous of jaywalking. My guess of this dangerous behaviour is not thought either in formal or informal education. A kid might be saying, “Look my father can do that, why I can’t do the same”. It is always learning by example. In summary, there is not GOOD example to follow here.

  8. It’s all about the me me me mentality of China.

    If you are friends with a Chinese person, they will actually care about you (unless if there is financial gain). If you don’t know the Chinese person, they will avoid you like a plague even if you get hit by a car and are dying.

    Been in China for quite a few years and married a Chinese person. We’ve seen people fall down on the street and drop their belongings. We’ve also helped them pickup their stuff, but on a busy street like Huaihai Road, not a single Chinese person came to help.

    Solve the me me me culture, and you solve the traffic problems!

  9. “There are many traffic rules. However, I first know it only after I pass the driver’s exam.”

    Ummmmmmm…shouldn’t you have known the traffic rules BEFORE you passed the driver’s exam????

  10. Perhaps it’s because of my background in urban planning but Shanghai, Beijing and most other Chinese cities are poorly planned and continue to be poorly planned. I’m not sure about the figures for Shanghai but on average 1000 new cars hit the roads of Beijing daily! Exacerbate that by poorly built roads and highways, inexperienced/reckless drivers and that will explain the traffic problems all over the country…

  11. Deeze,

    I don’t think the city is poorly planned. You have wide roads, well planned cross junctions, block design township layout etc. There more complicated roads in other countries with flyover racing towards the sky height, Y-shape junction, roundabout (probably you can’t even find one here), . However, the traffic is still manageable. I am fine eventhough I got caught in a bumper to bumper jam for an hour. But here, I can’t easy bear for 15 minutes. I will go crazy seeing drivers zig-zagging, cut into your lanes, trying their best to squeeze you out of the drive way, honking (which doesn’t help when the traffic is RED!).

    If you’re really an urban planner, you shall study the traffic light control system in other countries. It will be a good case study and you will definitely find a vast different. Don’t have to go far… check out Hong Kong traffic light system. When the pedestrian is crossing, none of the car will move. If in Singapore, the car will brake for you to cross a zebra crossing. Not like here, nobody understand what is the usage/meaning of zebra crossing. It is so basic…!!!

    Let’s make China a better city.

  12. FACT: Vehicles (cars, buses, bicycles, mororcyles, etc.) MUST YIELD TO THE PEDESTRIAN when the vehicle is at a red light and the pedestrin has the “Walk” signal. This is the law in China.

    WJS… I am curious, do you follow it as a driver?

    Do you wait patiently for the pedestrian or do you cut him off as you are making a right on red?


  13. no need for long passages to explain bad traffic in shanghai and rest of china, 2 words suffice:


    same like the problem with spitting and littering, all because of the lack of proper civic/civil education of the general population, be they drivers or pedestrians! and unfortunately, this problem will need generations of hard work to have any possibility of seeing improvement.

  14. I remember ex-premier of China Zhu Rongji once said “Chinese are the smartest people in the world” and the people of China take his word seriously and often take the same notion to the extreme, eventually, self-esteem prevails.

    Today, if you challenge anyone of jaywalking or queue jumping, he/she must think you are insulting their intelligence and not knowing they are actually obstructing the social norm. Same to the traffic violators as they think they are not only beating the clock, but also the system.

    Street vendors always “float” the price against their customers and anticipate counter-offer, but not knowing this is against fair-trade practice and at the end curtailing those would be customers.

    Two weeks ago in Milan, Italy. A group of Chinese immigrate disputed with local police over parking violation and developed into riot. During confrontation, the street were full of Chinese waving Chinese flag not knowing the act is the sign of occupation of foreign soil.

    I think it should all start with the “social education”.

  15. OK… but back to my first comment.

    Why must I be afraid to cross the street when I have the “Walk” signal?

    Most of the comments seemed to hit it on the head.

    I hope that some of you who have posted here and drive a car will respect my right and the law to let me cross the street when YOU… NOT ME must yield to me my right of way.

    Otherwise… you are a piece of…. *&$#

    IT’S THE LAW. Go back and read your “rules of the road book” issued by the same guys who “gave” you your diver’s license.


  16. WJS… I know that you have been to the US a few times and this might be a good forum to educate your vistors to this site who drive cars but have never left China.

    What is the difference between driving in China and the US when it comes to respecting the pedestrian’s right of way at an intesection? You should know.

    I am from Chicago and have lived here for 19 years. It just seems to be getting worse.

    I don’t like to be afraid to cross the street. But I am.

    I went back home last year and it took me a while to get used to not being afraid to cross the street when I had the RIGHT OF WAY at the “Walk” sign.

    I felt stupid… because my friends back home would ask me why? All I could say was it was a “China thing”.

    I Love Shanghai… but is this the image that I want my friends to know about this great city?

    Tell your fellow friends who drive to respect our right to cross the street at the designated places (legally) and ask them to tell their friends too.

    Because I don’t know of any foreign freinds who do not think the same. It is not safe. It leaves a black eye on Shanghai. I don’t want that.


  17. I know you guys in China can’t read this online, but you access it through a proxy…

    Milan police in Chinatown clash

    By David Willey

    Italian riot police have broken up a violent protest in Milan’s Chinatown by scores of Chinese immigrants.

    About 10 police officers were injured and a similar number of Chinese people received hospital treatment.

    The trouble began when a Chinese woman was fined for illegally transporting goods in a private vehicle.

    More than 100 Chinese shopkeepers and members of their families, many waving the national flag, massed in the street claiming racial discrimination.

    During the unrest, which lasted until nightfall, a car was overturned and the police carried out a baton charge. The woman was arrested and later admitted to hospital.

    The Chinese immigrant community in Italy has grown very rapidly during the past 10 years.

    Normally, they keep a very low profile and cause little trouble to the authorities.

    According to official statistics, there are about 114,000 Chinese currently living in Italy, but the true figure is probably double this number because of widespread illegal immigration.

    In Milan alone, the resident Chinese population has more than doubled to about 12,000 in about 10 years. Other cities with a large Chinese community include the capital, Rome, and Prato, in Tuscany, where Chinese workers are employed in the textile dyeing industry.

    In Rome and Milan wholesale distributors of goods made in China occupy entire quarters of the two cities. It was the noise and traffic caused by these businesses which sparked off the rioting in Milan.

  18. OK, guys, I’m sorry but you’re all missing the point.

    Traffic is a cultural thing. Those who quote the rules are missing the point – what’s important is knowing which rules are important and which are not, and that’s a cultural issue. Maybe some of you come from countries in which all rules must be followed exactly, but that’s not how either China works, or the U.S., where I am from. If you stand on the street furious because nobody is following the rules (yes, I have done this and still do sometimes) THE PROBLEM IS YOU, not the 14 million people around you who have different expectations.

    Of course I wish Shanghainese didn’t turn right on red without stopping, and especially that they would stop at zebra crossings – this makes me crazy. I also wish Brits would serve beer cold, Spanish restaurants opened before 9 pm, and Japanese people heated their buildings. But the deal is, you live in someone else’s country, you have to accept their norms. The norm here is, traffic rules can be broken.

    If you came to America, drove 55 miles per hour in the left hand lane and started yelling at everyone else for going too fast, people would think you were a nut. And that’s what people think when you freak out about people running red lights in Shanghai. Try to get some perspective.

    Jianshuo had a great post about this some months ago, talking about how after driving in the U.S. and getting used to following the rules, he came back to Shanghai and was a BAD DRIVER because of it. When you follow the rules instead of the norms, you become a danger because you are not acting as people expect.

    BTW, the incident in Italy was reported as posted here in the Shanghai Daily.

    P.S. I am a planner too. Planners don’t set traffic signals. Widening the narrow streets would be a terrible idea – you wouldn’t solve the traffic problem (no streets are wide enough to handle everyone driving in a high density area) and you would make it impossible to walk around. There is too much of this in Shanghai already.

    Thanks all.

  19. ddjiii:

    Actually I also read the Shanghai Daily article, but as you know, you have to take local media with a grain of salt.

    If you read a few versions of the situation online, you’ll notice the Shanghai Daily article skews the situation so the Chinese woman becomes the victim.

    3 other issues I want to bring up is:

    1. Why is the premier of China and a diplomat of China interfering with local affairs? The Chinese people living in Italy are most probably Italian Chinese… or if you are Chinese, consider yourself Chinese Italian. The issue is, if an Italian immigrant immigrates to America and gets into trouble, would the Italian Prime Minister or an Italian diplomat get involved? The most probable answer is NO! You do not interfere with domestic disputes or issues.

    2. If a British citizen living in Shanghai got upset with the local police, would he/she hold a protest and wave his American flag around? Probably NOT! If the British citizen immigrated to China and became Chinese, would he cause a massive protest and wave his British flag around? These people immigrated to Italy and should follow Italian rules (like you said above). The problem is they didn’t! Because as you said, the Chinese like to BEND the rules to their advantage as much as possible. Also, if the landed immigrant to China was formerly British, would he be insulting his new home country if he waved his former British flag around in protest? The most probable answer is YES!

  20. I now I can not change norms, but even I am living in Shanghai 3 years and enjoy many chinese culture but stills makes me crazy that cars do not take care of lights and zebra crossroads. It really makes me anoyed !

    Now pedestrians could have different reactions:

    – Keep everthing as now, cars are the kings of the road, pedestrian are not persons just objects and subordinate to the cars.

    ddjjii said ” traffic rules can be broken ” no come on tell me cars can brake traffic rules (as they are stronger) but pedestrian should not cross the street when there is a red light. So cars follow the chinese norm but pedestrian have to follow the traffic rules.

    -Another behaviour as pedestrians could be, because the norm says ”traffic rules can be broken” so my as a pedestrian can also brake the rules, so from now one i will not take care of the traffic lights and cross if there is no near car !.

    Really when i go by bike i see traffic is messy and bikes and motorbikes also follow the ”traffic rules can be broken” norm even they are weaker than cars. So i proposed from now on this, lets pedestrians also do the same as the other cars, bikes and motorbikes, let’s make a little more messy the traffic. It doesn’t matter as traffic rules can be broken,so lets all brake the rules and cross anywhere because the messiness make people to behave also messy, it brings as to libertinism ( libertinaje in spanish).

    -The third way of behaviour would be ok i will wait my tourn and not cross in red light but i will defend until the last my right to cross when the green light.To defend ourselves we can use anything we have close to us, for instance the umbrella could be used to frighten bikes, motorbikes or even cars of being hit if they are not so kind to stop when the light is red for them. I tried it and worked anyway if they are rude to me why i can not be rude to them?

    Let me explain a story, one day i was going to superbrand mall in pudong, near the pearl tower and there is a long beatifull and useless drawings on the road of the century avenue(which ironically it is supossed to be a sign of future development and prosperity of china) and there was a huge number of people waiting for the chance to cross the street but one only one man thought people should cross and then that crazy man encourage to one small group to cross and then 4 people crossed risking to have been hited and then the car stops and the lowai make a sign of OK to the car driver to thank the driver and then the rest of the people including old people and children also crossed and i could see those 4 people felt happy inside no matter what the other people may think and thought it was correct what they did. So toghether we can do it people crossing will stops the car is forced to stop and then we give thanks for their amability.

    Some people may look you like an ET, but maybe after a while the driver or the people who watch this may think, hey this crazy laowai was right, why we should respect the traffic lights and cars don’t?, hey cars should also stop in the lights and in the zebras.

    Otherwise ddjiii tell me traffic rules can be broken tell me cars can brake traffic rules (because they are stronger) but pedestrian should respect the rules and do not cross the street when the light is red .

    And remeber cars are stronger but if another car (or even worse a truck) doesn’t respect either its traffic light a big accident could happen.

    So as a conclussion to all this please lets all respect the rules or this would be the law of the forest.

    I really expect this to become better in the future in China. Hope some people think about this. I know the easy is to say this battle is lost but i will keep on fighting even one day i get injured but i will not surrender. Sometimes norms have to be change to be adapted to the rules and best practies. HK probably did it probably due to the british influence, this could be a very interesting topic to do some research.

    I know i have been a little drastic and may think i am crazy but crazy people changed the world.For instance Newton,Colon,…

  21. Shockr, about the Milan incident.

    If someone received a parking ticket, do you think she should fight the traffic warden in the street or she should defend her motion in the court?

    Immediate after the parking dispute, the Milan Chinatown turned into sea of red, people were waving Chinese Flag, do you think every home and business in Chinatown should keep a Chinese flag in anticipating of the event and who were distributing the flag.

  22. I have to agree with deeze in saying that Shanghai is poorly planned. The roads are very narrow and people just keep buying cars. My solutions would probably be something like:

    1) Put a higher vehicle tax on cars and gasoline.

    2) Open more public transportation parallel to subway lines 1/2

    3) use more overhead bridges to cut down on stoplights

    And for wishful thinking, why not: bring back bicycles and motorcycles because they are more space-efficient.

    Other than that, there really isn’t much to be done. The idea struck me that private cars being banned altogether from yan’an tunnel during rush hour wouldn’t be bad, but to be honest i think also an analysis of bus routes would also be beneficial as there are a LOT of half-full or even empty buses going through that tunnel. Also I would say that moving some of the bus terminal stops out of lujiazui to somewhere else would be helpful. Basically, my point is that empty buses should not run anywhere if possible as they take up too much space.

  23. Well seems that government is using OLYMPIC Games 2008 to make some advertaisment for showing people respect,education and having a good hurt and it is a nice advert, the message is you help people and they help you as shows people opening the door to other, giving seat in the bus to old people, an also a car that stop in a zebra cross !!

    Congratulations, it is a great idea.

    As i said hope this become better and better.

  24. Having lived and yes drive in Shanghai for the last 8 years, I believe the road sysem is a engineering marvel to move 22 million people a day and relatively little traffic jams. But it is shear “Utter Chaos”. And build the enire infrastructure in the last 10 years. I only wish the parking situation could be improved.

    My company does provides a Car and Driver but being single the entire company knows my dating habits. So I was forced to drive myself. A Tragedy in itself..

  25. The average Chinese bicyclist has a death wish. He really wants to become a hood ornament, on my car. Can I tell stories, having lived and remained somewhat sane while driving in Shanghai.

    My brand new car was hit 7 times in the first 60 days, from purchase. I was stopped all 7 times. Everone paid me 200-400 rmb per accident. Finally a motorcyclist hit me broad sided, I yelled and screamed in Putong Wah. The police came wrote a report, impounded the guys motorcycle and halled the guy to jail. Told me to come to the police station to claim my ‘damage money” 2000 rmb. I arrived at the police station in Pudong. And the police Captain conducted the hearing and found that I was right and the motorcylcist need to pay me 2000rmb. The motorcycst called 5 of his friends and they all arrived with aggregately 1600 rmb (about 200usd), the Police Captain was pissed and started taking unopened cigerette packages, jewelry, etc from his friends. He handed me the money and treasures and asked if I would release my claim….

    I took my car to a nearby automotive store and for 8 accidents and 4000 rmb in damage claims completed repaired and painted for 1100 rmb about $140usd.

    I still drive and my anger management classes, have done no good………………………..

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