How I Drive in Shanghai?

When I talked about Reasons of Bad Traffic in Shanghai, people asked me about how I drive in Shanghai. This is a good question. Very good one. As a daily driver, and as someone who is highly concerned about traffic rules, and the chaos traffic, let me explain how I drive. I don’t want to be political correct at all – don’t expect me to tell you that I follow all traffic rules – I just want to share exactly how I drive and why. This helps better than telling everyone how I SHOULD drive.

Stop Signs

First thing, I don’t stop and stop signs.

As I described in this post: On Ethic, to stop at stop signs create chaos.

I do slow down at stop signs.

There are two reasons for this. Not many drivers in Shanghai respect stop sign, and to stop at stop sign is exactly as to do a full stop on the road. The car behind you can easily hit your car, or offended. Whenever I stop at stop signs, and if there is a car behind me, they may either horn, or flash the front lights, or more often, turns and pass me.

The second reason is, stop signs work better for road with not-so-wide bicycle lanes, or with fewer bicycles.

Taking the exit of my residential area as an example. If I stop at the stop sign, just before the bicycle lane, there is no way for me to see whether there are cars on the main road, because it is still 2 meters away, and the cars are completely hidden behind the green plants which separating the main road and the bicycle road.

If I move on a little bit, and completely stops at the bike lane, this is very like the stop sign position in US. Then I can see whether there are cars on the road, but the problem is, even if there are cars on the main road, I have to move on (slowly) since I have completely jammed the bikes. There is just no way for a car to stay in the middle of a bike lane (it is as wide as a car).

I do stop sometimes, at certain places (like the one behind Grand Gateway) every morning – only when there is no cars behind me.

Turning Right

I do turn right even when there are pedestrians on the zebras.

This is even more complicated. There are also two reasons.

Reason No. 1. Traffic rules are mutual agreement. I do stop at the zebra, and wait for pedestrians. Most of the time, they would stop and wait for you. Waving hands and gave signs for them to go first do not always work. In my experience, the working ways is to yelling at people and say, “go first”, and people hestitately move on. This is not a big problem though. The rule of thumb is, either decide to stop and stop firmly, or decide to go, and go carefully. Never get into the middle – when I stop, people stop. When they go, I go – too dangerous in this situation, even worse than directly go (but carefully).

The second reason, there are so many cars behind you. If you don’t go on, for example, at the Guangyuan Road and Gongcheng Road in Xujiahui, it is pretty sure that you will never be able to turn right. It is the same at Huaihai Road and many other roads in Shanghai. It is OK to stop for the first group of pedestrians, but to wait until there is no pedestrians on the zebra before you go is just impossible.

The Pedstrain go first rule does not work in crowded city like Shanghai. The only working rule is, go carefully, and gave way to pedestrians as much as possible.

I remember there was hot debate about this on newspaper – why it is allowed to turn right at red light? Many people propose for cars to stop at red light – just as in Europe. The explanation was, if Shanghai has this rule, the traffic will completely stop.

I thought twice, and believe this is a reasonable answer. It is all about resources. There are so few roads, and so many cars, and people. People have to accept the fact is, not everyone has 2 sq. meter of space in this city. It is just like in a village, there are totally 1000 USD there, and there are 100 people. The reality is, everyone only have 10 USD. We can either increase the total social wealth (by building more road) or reducing population (by limiting car numbers). When these two factors are not changed, people have to accept the fact that cars are allowed to make right turn at red light.

Having said that, I am not saying the current way is correct. Drivers must show respect to pedestrians at any time, and give ways as often as possible.

It is like the “PUSH to walk” button. In many places, there are such button. The intention of the design was to keep the traffic light system more efficient. it turns out that most of the buttons were not used, since it is pressed all the time all day – there are just too many people that the button does not help.

Speeding

I don’t drive too fast. I respect most of the traffic signs, like 80 KM/h on the elevated highway, 110 KM/h on expressway.

There are some exceptions. One is at the Puxi part of Nanpu Bridge, heading toward Puxi. It makes 40, but when everyone is running at 60, to keep at 40 means intentionally mess up the traffic. I tried to keep at 40 KM/h, and in the 2 minutes of my drive, more than 10 cars behind me changed lane, passed me, and change back to the lane before me. That means because of me, the traffic was turned into a mess. To keep a rule that is not in effect and create real chaos, or to break the rule but be part of peaceful, and ordered traffic, that is a question for any driver.

The other is the Wanping Road Exit of Inner Ring. There are 1000 meters with speed limit of 30 km/h. The left lane has limit of 80 km/h. You can imagine what happens if I suddenly slow down to 30 and keeps that. The same problem.

While we see many “wrong rules”, the choice is, whether to follow the rule and create chaos, or to follow the reality. This is not an easy question to answer. I know the “political correct” answer, but my choice is the “reality correct” answer.

P.S. This is the bonus question for you:

A train running out of control. It runs toward a station. There are 20 children playing on the working railway, and one children playing at an abandoned railway. As the one in charge of the railway, you have two choices. One is to let the train go, and this will kill 20 children (who do not follow the safety rule, and playing in dangerous place), the other choice is to switch the train to the abandoned rail and kill one innocent children. He is doing the right thing but killed for someone else’s fault. What is your choice?

Update April 28, 2007

Check out the future discussion and explaination here.

24 thoughts on “How I Drive in Shanghai?

  1. CJ

    WJS… that is crazy! Your exuses just don’t make any sense.

    So you think that because that you can’t trust the driver behind you it is OK NOT to give me the RIGHT OF WAY as a pedestrian?

    Shame on you.

    Explain… because I just don’t get it.

    CJ

  2. CJ

    WJS… I am sorry… no I am not. FOLLOW THE RULES when you are in THE downtown part of the city.

    I have always had a alot of respet for you. But your post comes across as ignorant and just plain dumb.

    It makes no sense.

    I thougt that maybe, just may be, this was a forum where local drivers could be a bit more educated.

    I guess not…

    CJ

  3. Shockr

    JS:

    I can assume most non Chinese passport holding citizens living in Shanghai or China would disagree with you. Just because everyone is breaking the law doesn’t mean it is right for for you to.

    I know this is a totally different situation, but have you thought about the German Nazi’s? Many of the lower level military infantry said they didn’t have a choice because the orders came from above… but does that mean they HAD to carry out the orders? The entire world agreed they were wrong and fought them for it.

    As someone that has driven in China, I understand where you are coming from, but it doesn’t make it right for you to disregard the law just like everyone else. If pedestrians in China all banded together and said “NO, we won’t accept this driver behavior anymore”, I’m sure more drivers would follow the rules. The problem is that the majority of pedestrians don’t even know they have the right of way and assume rich people with vehicles are always right! Btw, I’ve also hit a BMW in Shanghai when I was riding my bike because “I had the right of way going straight when he was turning left”. He was afraid to stop cause he knew I was right, so he kept driving off with a scratched car…

    What also concerns me is that you say the following: “It is all about resources. There are so few roads, and so many cars, and people. People have to accept the fact is, not everyone has 2 sq. meter of space in this city.”.

    What you are implying is that traffic in New York City (with the biggest city population in North America) doesn’t work and that the automobiles have the right of way. The reality is (and I’ve lived there also) the traffic in NYC works because the drivers do follow the rules (most of the time) and there are many police officers around to enforce the law when it is broken.

  4. Dancingdots

    I think only if you are driving in his situation, and found that you can follow all the rules, should you be able to critize him.

    Personally, I think it is wrong not to follow the traffic rules, but you are talking about the entire driving populations and the pedestrians, if 75% of them do not follow rules, how would you be able to follow the rules? Chain effects anyone?

    I think if they start to really enforce the traffic rule, you will see a change, otherwise, it is just a zoo no matter how you slice it.

  5. George

    Your post makes me scared to walk around Shanghai, knowing that you’ll probably hit me someday with your ridiculous excuses for not following the traffic laws. Shame on you.

    You are educated and have a good job yet you are driving like a mentally ill person. What is wrong with you? Have you learned nothing in your life?

  6. ddjiii

    Hm, same issue as yesterday.

    1) This is what I am trying to say: the driving culture in China is that the WRITTEN rules are not important. What’s important are the UNWRITTEN rules (and the written rules that the traffic cops are enforcing on any particular day.) I think in this case WJS is 100% right – if he were to decide to follow all the written rules, he would be disobeying all the unwritten rules. This would make him a bad and dangerous driver, just as if in Germany someone were to decide to disobey all the written rules. Driving is the most dangerous thing most people do on a daily basis, and to take it upon yourself to change society by disobeying the important rules (the unwritten ones) makes you a danger to yourself and others.

    2) However, sorry WJS, I disagree with you completely that these rules cannot work in Shanghai. They don’t work because people choose not to follow them, but in crowded cities all over the world, including New York, they work just fine. The principle is, no central city has good traffic – the demand is far more than any city can meet, even cities like Los Angeles or Houston that put traffic above every other consideration of a good city. You simply can not meet the traffic demand. Far better is to follow London or Singapore and try NOT to meet traffic demands as much as possible, to make the city better for pedestrians.

  7. ddjiii

    George, your comments are outrageous and completely out of line. Have you ever been to Shanghai? WSJ has shown himself consistently to be a thoughtful and moderate person, and I believe in this case he is doing what is most reasonable.

    You should be scared to walk around Shanghai, it’s not Geneva, you know. It’s one of the things I don’t like about this city.

  8. mariz

    Oh my God JS..How could you say by “. To keep a rule that is not in effect and create real chaos, or to break the rule but be part of peaceful, and ordered traffic, ”

    How can you correct and make a road policy effective if you allow yourself to think

    this way? This is idiotic!

    You should be pursuing a solution to work for the greater majority. How could you let yourself think this way?

  9. billng

    I think everyone should keep a principle in mind, which is established to benefit most of people. If no one insist the right but ignore the rule, even connive the wrong, how can we re-walk up to the right way? Everyone has a responsibility to let things be in order.

    By the way, the last question JS mentioned, is really a bad question! Don’t take that for granted to obtain a right of breaking the law! If so, things would be messed up!

  10. Ben

    How do you folks think Americans acted back in the 1920s? Give Shanghai a break. People DO learn civility after time. Look at Singapore. Chinese people with public manners! If you can’t accept the way things are as of now, just don’t go.

  11. Ben

    By the way, have you people lambasting WJS even tried driving in Shanghai? In some cases, it is literally impossible to have manners. Literally, situations where obeying rules cannot be physically achieved. At busy intersections, waiting for the pedestrian crossing and bicycle lane to be clear for a right-turn may take SEVERAL HOURS. That is obviously unacceptable. Until over/underpasses are built at major intersections, like in Hong Kong, maniacal drivers will be the norm. You folks must be from places with light pedestrian traffic. I had a friend that was unable to leave a car rental parking lot for forty-five (45!) minutes because the sidewalk never cleared — she returned the car in frustration afterwards.

  12. Shockr

    JS:

    I want to make a point to let you know that I and many people enjoy reading your blog on a daily basis. I agree with you on many things you write, and applaud you for being such a humble person.

    Coming from a free press society, you can see that we are able to argue and criticize each other and still be friends.

    I hope you understand that our arguments about different issues does not mean we don’t like reading your blog. :-)

  13. Shockr

    JS:

    I want to make a point to let you know that I and many people enjoy reading your blog on a daily basis. I agree with you on many things you write, and applaud you for being such a humble person.

    Coming from a free press society, you can see that we are able to argue and criticize each other and still be friends.

    I hope you understand that our arguments about different issues does not mean we don’t like reading your blog. :-)

  14. Shockr

    Ben:

    Doing what is right is not always easy. Especially when it goes against the norm. Are you a follower or a leader?

    I and my friends drive or have driven in Shanghai and do the following:

    1. Never honk. Be patient.

    2. Stop at the stop sign and then turn right when it is appropriate. This includes waiting for the first rush of people to pass before you try to nudge over.

    3. Wait for the drivers going straight to cross the intersection before turning left.

    4. When being honked at, ignore them! Or you’ll end up with road rage.

    5. Judge the situation, and stop when it is safe to at a yellow light.

    6. Be courteous and patient with reckless drivers and pedestrians, or you’ll get into many arguments over something very petty. Worse yet…. you hit some communist bigwig’s family member… then you are screwed for sure!

  15. rr

    It seems that the most important rule in SH traffic is that drivers and pedestrians should all share a blatant lack of respect for rules and each other. If everybody is disrespectful then we have a harmonious traffic culture!

    All kidding aside, I think the major problem is lack of skill and understanding by both pedestrians and drivers. Cities like NYC, where there is limited space with many pedestrians, still properly enforce a no turn on red rule and traffic flows fine. This is because all rules are respected, and not treated as a buffet (I’ll follow this rule….but that one over there isn’t so nice…). The ability to understand rules, follow them completely and reap the benefits will take some time here and it might be too late for SH’s first generation drivers.

    It’s a learning process, as everywhere else. Once excuses such as overcrowding, lack of space etc. are shown to be what they are (just excuses…driving in overpopulated Japanese cities is much more pleasant than here) we will hopefully see improvement.

    Cheers!

  16. Shane

    Traffic rules are made by human based on the law makers’ understanding of things that could maximize most people’s well being. And it’s meaningful only if they are enforced and respected by most people. If you follow it while all (most) others don’t, you really can’t get any benefit by following it – As you said if you stop completely at the stop sign you will get hit from behind – that’s real.

    So? what I am thinking is unless WJS you are able to get most people respect the traffic rules in shanghai or convince the authority to get tough enforcing it you wouldn’t be able to benefit from it by following it yourself – it could cost your life in worst case.

    Human made laws are different from God’s law (God’s law is eternal and unconditional, whoever breaks it will pay a price, guaranteed.), and are always depend on things like if the law makers have correct understanding of the situation and/or how well the law is enforced. When one or more of these are insufficient, the whole stuff would not have desired effects, of cause you would have to think about it if you are going to follow. There is nothing for you to feel shame about.

    I do believe JS is a humble and reasonable man.

  17. cnnhbo

    I think the main question is that between the reality and the rules ,which have to make a balance for people who live in the world .I think the most people critisize JS here may be also would drive as JS did ,they post their opinion here not just as they did . We should follow the rule absolutley ,but one thing is true that JS says what he did .

  18. George

    ddjiii,

    I live here. I’ve just never known a person who actively drives like this. My friends that drive don’t drive like this. So what’s the difference between JS and these other safe drivers? You tell me.

    If JS feels uncomfortable driving in Shanghai than maybe he shouldn’t drive. Why would you want to drive here anyway? I guess its nice to stick it to the rest of us by showing how rich you are. But other than that, Shanghai has great public transportation and you can get to most places within the city without a car, either by using your legs (how shocking!), bus, taxi, subway, or ferry.

  19. Shanghaios

    Despite usually appreciating your comments, advises and thoughts I’m completely surpised to read this issue Especially your item 2 explanation that maybe “you will never be able to turn right”. Do realise that the same applies for pedastrians: they also need to get a chance to cross the street safely without a constant flow of cars and trucks pushing through. Since a car is stronger (a dent in the car is not as bad as an personal injury) it can’t be true that such is the reason that the car can push himself through the pedestrians. (which is the reason pedestrians will wait for teh cars in the end). Besides, you will be able to turn right as soon as the pedestrian traffic light turns red again (…)

    A related thing that iiritates me is the fact that the traffic assistants and police do take care about people standing 10 centimeters too far on the street when waiting for a red light but never try to intervene when another right-turning car is pushing through the pedastrians.

    Anayway, as you can see, you at least raised an interesting topic!

  20. Shanghaios

    Despite usually appreciating your comments, advises and thoughts I’m completely surpised to read this issue Especially your item 2 explanation that maybe “you will never be able to turn right”. Do realise that the same applies for pedastrians: they also need to get a chance to cross the street safely without a constant flow of cars and trucks pushing through. Since a car is stronger (a dent in the car is not as bad as an personal injury) it can’t be true that such is the reason that the car can push himself through the pedestrians. (which is the reason pedestrians will wait for teh cars in the end). Besides, you will be able to turn right as soon as the pedestrian traffic light turns red again (…)

    A related thing that iiritates me is the fact that the traffic assistants and police do take care about people standing 10 centimeters too far on the street when waiting for a red light but never try to intervene when another right-turning car is pushing through the pedastrians.

    Anayway, as you can see, you at least raised an interesting topic!

  21. Herbert

    One of the silliness that makes turning right difficult without pushing past pedestrians is that the pedestrians’ light often turns green/red at the same time as the traffic light for that direction. If that was changed so that the pedestrians’ light’s green period did not completely coincide with the traffic light’s then it should improve the likeliness of having more civil drivers. This should also help pedestrians to appear more civil to drivers. Remember that pedestrians have not been trained to think like drivers while we (those holding drivers licences) have been.

  22. Alicia

    Re your bonus question: There must be a reason to abandon the railway, so if you choose to switch the train to the abandoned rail, maybe you are not just killing one child but kill all the innocent people on the train.

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