For the record, highway traffic in China is the same as highway traffic in any Western country. The roads are the same, the toll booths are the same, the drivers are the same, the occasional idiot is the same. If you’re driving on a highway in China, your learned skills will serve you well.
However, if you’re a newcomer to Shanghai, there are a few things you would need to know about driving in city traffic, just to get you started.
First, you have no doubt been taught well about defensive driving. In Shanghai, what we call defensive driving, the locals call parking. And that's what you'll be doing. If there is an empty square centimeter in front of you where a car or bicycle could possibly fit, one will instantly be there. For added flavor, it often doesn’t much matter on which side of the road that space happens to be.
It would be physically possible to just sit in one place on a street for hours, watching everybody else get there first. It's like being excessively polite in the queue to get on the metro - you'll just sit there for the rest of your life while everybody moves on.
Traffic in Shanghai isn't crazy or uncontrolled. It’s just that expedience takes precedence over law and order. Normally, green lights are treated as green; amber lights are treated as green. Lights that have just turned red are treated as green; lights that long ago turned red are considered as amber.
Downtown traffic is generally low-velocity but you have to stay awake if you're crossing streets because cars, bikes, motorcycles, will come from anywhere to fill that little gap in front of you. You could easily end up draped over some car's hood ornament or mounted on the handlebars of a scooter.
Fortunately, in the city center and the major populated areas, the traffic is sufficiently low-speed that unpleasant things seldom happen and when they do, they’re usually minor.
In the West, pedestrians have absolute priority for right-of-way. In Shanghai, pedestrians have no priority and in fact appear to be largely invisible to anyone with wheeled transportation. Just so you know, the order of priority is buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and you, if you’re on foot. Furthermore, Shanghainese pedestrians have priority over other Chinese on foot, and over foreigners too.
You should also know that this is a very large city with many very wide streets. When we consider the varieties of traffic available here, this is the picture we have: in the far right lane we have bicycles and motorbikes that are turning right. Next to them are the bikes going straight ahead and next are those that plan to turn left.
Then we have a lane of cars turning right, followed (to the left) by a lane of cars going straight ahead, followed by another lane of cars planning to turn left. On the other side of the median line we have the same list in reverse. If you add that up, you have 14 chances to be either bumped, knocked down, run over, impaled, skewered or otherwise disposed of, just minding your own business trying to cross a street.
Most useful intersections have a person who acts as traffic monitor (some touristy ones have 4 of them). I'm not sure of their functions exactly. They blow whistles a lot, and their purpose in life appears to be getting themselves ignored by motorcycles that do whatever they want. They do tell pedestrians when to cross the streets in case people are blind and can't see the lights. And they can give good directions for all streets in a one-block radius if you know how to ask in Chinese and can understand the answer.
China (including Shanghai) is emerging from a bicycle-driven transportation system, and still retains the respect for orderly cycling that exists among all ten-year-olds everywhere. What this means to you is that bicycles (and small motorbikes) go anywhere they want anytime they want. That includes sidewalks, lobbies, and other places you might not immediately imagine. It also means that for anyone with two wheels, all traffic lights are always green. Further, the distinction between one-way and two-way streets (and, in fact, one-way lanes) is largely obliterated.
Add to this the fact that bikes don’t necessarily correspond their direction of travel according to which side of the road they are on, so be warned that in all the bike lanes you can expect real surprises. Advising a pedestrian to ‘look both ways’ really doesn’t do justice to this warning. The saving grace again is that most traffic is low-speed. Having said that, it really is quite necessary to always look in every direction before stepping onto a street, and before crossing blind driveways and the like.
Bicycles often will come out of nowhere, and they do consider that they have the right of way. The other really annoying thing is that they go through crosswalks full of people as if the people aren’t there. They just don’t want to stop, or even slow down.
Shanghai’s pedestrian traffic may itself be a surprise for many foreigners who are accustomed to the orderly ‘keep to the right’ training they’ve received at home. In this city, locals most often walk wherever they please and are generally disinclined to change direction unless facing impending doom.
The plan seems to be, "If I don’t move, maybe he will." It can be a bit surprising to see someone coming directly toward you with no apparent inclination to shift sideways to avoid an impact. Even worse, often when you are almost but not quite directly in someone’s path, they will move TOWARD you instead of away, so that you are now firmly in their path. You didn’t move before; maybe you’ll move now.
In practice, Shanghainese are exceptionally skilled at twisting and swerving at the last microsecond so they miss you by less than a millimeter, and they do this without actually changing their vector or direction of travel, and apparently without moving their bodies. It can be maddening to brace for an impact that never arrives. After a dozen or so of these experiences in quick succession, you may sometimes feel like you really want to whack somebody. But, you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking.
The cheaper cars that are made locally cost about RMB 35,000 - and license plates in Shanghai cost almost RMB 40,000. This is the only city in China that limits the number of cars by putting up a limited number of license plates up for auction each month. So people with too much money bid too much and the plates cost more than the car.
Buildings here don't often have their street numbers on them, so sometimes finding the place you want is not easy. Usually, the taxi drivers don't know any street numbers anyway; you tell them the street you want, and the name of the nearest cross street and they take you there, and you look for the correct building by yourself. Seems strange, but it works.
It's worth noting that drivers in Shanghai are forbidden to refuse a fare - as drivers in so many other cities will do. Here, a driver could lose his license for that, so taxis will almost always smile and take you wherever you want to go - even if they don't want to go there.
However, one evening, some friends and I were kicked out of three taxis in succession because we knew only a street number. The taxi driver couldn't figure out where on a very long street that number might be, and he wasn't prepared to drive all over Shanghai to find it, so he told us to get out and find another taxi. In any other city, that would be strange; here, it was funny.
I hear a lot of things about China that aren't completely true. For example, people often say that taxi drivers in Shanghai speak no English at all. But in fact almost every time I get into a taxi here, I am warmly greeted with, "Hello passage. Welcome to take my taxi." Ok, so it's just a recording. But it's the thought that counts.
Truth be told, I think there are many taxi drivers here (and not only here) who don't speak Chinese either. Or, maybe they do. Maybe it's just that they're from Mongolia and learned their Chinese in Kyrgyzstan from an Afghan who studied in Poland, but it's not intelligible by me. That's not bad, because I don't often want a conversation anyway. The part that is bad, however, is that my fluent Mandarin occasionally appears equally unintelligible to them, and that's no way to get yourself to the station when you have only 15 minutes before the train leaves.
I don't usually have trouble but there have been a few exceptional cases. One morning I was going to Beijing and flagged a taxi. For some reason the driver couldn't understand that I wanted to go to the airport. And I thought, "It's 6:00 AM and I'm standing on the street with a suitcase. Where do you suppose I want to go? Starbucks?" Finally I showed him my ticket and then he understood. And then, while we were plotting to miss my flight, he kindly insisted on teaching me at great length how to pronounce 'airport' in some forsaken dialect that probably nobody but he and his mother could speak.
Shanghai is a big city and I'm told that in the Northern part of it the people have their own dialect, a variation of standard Shanghainese which is by itself unintelligible to everybody everywhere. I don't know if there are many of these people, but I found one at 6:00 AM.
And then once I was alone in Haining and the cab driver couldn't understand 'railway station'. Neither could the security guard who came to help. Neither could the gathering crowd. But I did good. I took out my electronic dictionary, showed them what I wanted, and then taught all of them how to say 'railway station' in proper Mandarin. And since I'm possessive of Canada's reputation here, I took the snotty woman aside and explained that I was American.
And then once I returned here on a flight from somewhere and thought I would get home faster by shuttle bus than by taxi. But there were 5 shuttle buses without signs I could recognise, so I went to the first bus and asked (in Mandarin), "Do you go to Zhongshan Park?" And the bus driver looked at me and said (in Mandarin) 'Huh?" So I went to the second bus and asked (in Mandarin) and the second bus driver said (in Mandarin), "Huh?" Ditto for the third, fourth and fifth buses. The odds are overwhelming against finding 5 successive bus drivers who can't understand perfect Mandarin, but there I was. "Taxi!!!"
Another time at the airport, I wanted a shuttlebus to my home and asked a driver which bus to take. He understood me ok, but his answer was unintelligible. I asked several times for confirmation but still couldn't understand. Eventually I became so frustrated, I asked him (in English) what the hell he was saying, and he answered me in English - he said, "You need bus # 941". It was only then I realised he'd been answering me in Shanghainese, not in Mandarin, and the numbers in Shanghainese are not remotely similar.
Most largish companies, and quite a few little ones too, have a car and driver - available generally to the manager or management staff - but also for them to pick and deliver visitors. For the Western companies spending Western currency, the car and driver are not expensive and are cheaper and more convenient than taxis.
You may not know this, but Shanghai does not have a telephone book. No White Pages, no Yellow Pages. How, you may ask, is that possible? Well, with a population as large as Canada, do you know how thick the phone book would be? Imagine collecting one copy of a phone book from every city, town and place in Canada large enough to have one, and then stacking them on top of each other. Now, imagine that all the people listed in that book are named Wang or Chen. Now, find your friend.
A building fell down in Shanghai recently. It was still under construction but almost finished.
This apparently wasn't due to poor-quality construction because the building stayed in one piece, but something happened to the soil beneath the building and it just plopped over. I've never heard of such a thing and neither has anyone else in the property business here.
The building was near a small river and apparently the bank collapsed from the weight or pressure of the nearby construction, and it all gave way. Still poor quality engineering, I suppose. I've included some photos.
Here is a link to an article in the China Daily.
The F1 race in Shanghai has been moved to April 17 this year, from its normal spot in late October. I don't know which is better - to sit on a steel bench in heavy Autumn rain having your eardrums perforated, or to sit on a steel bench in heavy Spring rain having your eardrums perforated. I may get some earplugs and go anyway. Also, I think I'll go to the Singapore race this year. It's the only night race and apparently is a great one, and it's almost exactly on my birthday so I'll celebrate.