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March 25, 2017

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New traffic rules attempt to break Shanghai’s hierarchical traffic system

IF you’ve been in Shanghai for more than two minutes, you’ll know that the city’s traffic culture follows a very clear system: It’s a hierarchy, and as a cyclist or pedestrian you’re on the bottom rung.

From the moment you first walk or cycle the streets of Shanghai — or anywhere in China — you probably quickly learn these unwritten rules.

You could even call them the Five Relationships of Traffic, and they go something like this: Train to truck, truck to bus, bus to car, car to bikes (of all kinds), and lastly bikes to pedestrians.

Basically, the bigger you are, the more right of way you hold. If you’re a pedestrian or cyclist, that can be tough, because you constantly need to be on the lookout for cars, buses, e-bikes and trucks flying out in front of you or cutting you off.

It’s the norm, and getting mad about it every time could possibly lead to overheating as huge jets of steam come out of your ears, or your teeth being ground to stumps within just a few short weeks.

Trust me, when I first started cycling in China I was that angry person. I really couldn’t understand how drivers around me were seemingly putting my life in danger at multiple times per trip.

I bought a really loud horn — to be honest, I still have it! — because I thought drivers maybe just didn’t even know I was there. I was blasting people’s eardrums from here to the Great Wall, and when I did I was often met with confused looks of shock which simply begged the question: “What’s the problem?”

I soon realized that cycling in China, as a foreigner, requires a change of mindset. Really, you need to succumb to the hierarchical system of things and learn to live with it.

If you see a car which is about to cut directly across your path, you need to slow down and let that car cut across your path.

If a bus needs to stop on the road right in front of you, and in the process boxes you in, wait patiently until the passengers have got on and off, and then continue on your way.

If you want to cross the road, don’t think that anyone is going to stop for you just because you’re on a zebra crossing (unless you’re in Hangzhou, of course!).

In the West you are probably used to the idea that the bigger you are on the roads, the more care you have to take to ensure the safety of those around you who are smaller and more vulnerable to injury. Not here.

Well, at least not until now. The Shanghai government has announced a bunch of new traffic laws which take effect today, replacing 80 percent of the existing traffic laws which date from 1997.

There are many provisions, including covering things such as seatbelts for toddlers, access to motorways, bus lanes, and much, much more.

But the two I’ll briefly mention today — No. 37 and 38 — are probably of the most concern for expats living in Shanghai.

They relate to the use of seatbelts for passengers, and right of way between vehicles and bikes and pedestrians.

It is now mandatory for passengers to wear a seatbelt. I assume there is already a law in place for drivers. This includes taxis, which are going to now be required to make sure their seatbelts are useable, and not hidden down under the seats somewhere.

Failure to do so could result in a warning or a fine.

Rule No. 38 relates to the relationship between cyclists and pedestrians and vehicles, and who has right of way under a number of circumstances.

These rules are aimed at vehicle drivers, so if you like to cycle in Shanghai and suddenly you find fewer vehicles cutting you off at every turn, you’ll know these new rules are working well.

I think this is definitely a great development, especially for cyclists.

Now we just need a new law that stops pedestrians from walking right down the middle of cycle lanes — my life in Shanghai will be sorted!


EDITOR’S note:

Andy Boreham comes from New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, and has lived in China, off and on, for the past four years. Now he is living in Shanghai earning a master’s degree in Chinese culture and language at Fudan University. He welcomes your feedback on all of the issues he covers — you can reach him at


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