Assistants offer extended arms to city traffic police

Traffic assistants are slowly outnumbering traffic police officers and winning over skeptical citizens by ensuring smooth and safe passage of vehicles and pedestrians.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Lu Yi stops a food deliveryman to check his e-bike at the crossroads of Zhongyuan Road and Guohe Road.

Traffic on Shanghai streets is so thick and often chaotic that the traffic police force has recruited citizen assistants to keep cars flowing and violators in check.

Some 5,300 assistants were hired in 2016, their numbers surpassing the city’s 4,000 traffic police officers. They can be spotted along roadways and at intersections, wearing blue shirts, white hats and bright yellow vests with the letters “FJ,” or “Fu Jing,” on the back in warmer days and darker jackets in winter.

So how are they doing? Shanghai Daily went onto the streets to find out.

Many of the assistants are retired army personnel, but others are people from all walks of life. Some have already been promoted to squad leaders.

The assistants have no enforcement powers. They can’t hand out fines or arrest anyone, but they can bark at jaywalkers and errant scooter riders.

At first, the public was a bit wary about these quasi-police, but their efforts in improving traffic safety have won them widespread acceptance.

One of the assistants is Lu Yi, a 38-year-old native of Anhui Province, who works as an assistant squad leader at the No. 6 Traffic Police Squad in Yangpu District. He’s been on the job for two years.

Short, sturdy and swarthy, Lu supervises about 40 assistant traffic police officers.

Before they begin work on the streets, the assistants are given a two-week training course concentrating on what powers they have and how to use hand and body gestures to control traffic. They are also taught how to use persuasion in preventing people from breaking traffic rules.

Their basic job is to keep pedestrians, bike riders and motorists in their proper lanes, especially at intersections with traffic lights.

Lu, a man of few words, admitted that the public can be hard to deal with.

An elderly man on a bike he once stopped cursed at him, calling him xiangxiaren, or “country bumpkin”— a term of derision city dwellers often use to describe out-of-towners.

Like almost all the assistants, Lu is from out of town.

“I told him that I am indeed xiangxiaren, but I am only doing my job,” Lu said. “I try my best to dissuade people from breaking the law, but I never push too hard on them.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A traffic police officer stops a food deliveryman who uses a fake plate on his e-bike. The e-bike was seized by the police.

In peak hours, the assistants often have to stop traffic even during green lights to prevent bigger congestion ahead. That often draws harsh comments from motorists, who believe that the assistants have no authority to stop traffic like that.

“In those cases, I usually ask a traffic police officer to come over and explain that motorists are supposed to obey assistants controlling traffic,” Lu said.

Lu’s rise in the ranks of assistants reflects his proactive methods in seeking solutions to problems he encounters.

Last April, he and 10 other assistants were dispatched to handle surging traffic around Gongqing Forest Park, during a season when crowds flood to the popular tourist and family site.

There, he worked out a four-point plan to deal with the traffic. It was very effective and impressed his supervisor.

“I never expected an assistant to even think of doing a job normally taken care of by the traffic police,” said the supervisor surnamed Yang, who oversees all assistant police officers for Yangpu District.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Every day before work, the traffic assistants practice hand gestures on controlling traffic for half an hour and checking their equipment. Squad leader Lu Yi practices with his team at a square in a residential complex near the No. 6 Traffic Police Squad of Yangpu District.

Another assistant is Li Chunfa, a 31-year-old Heilongjiang native who speaks a bit Russian.

Li came to Shanghai two years ago. Now he’s a sub-squad leader of the No. 3 Traffic Police Squad in the district.

A quick-tempered but jovial man, Li said he first thought his job was just to “be present at crossroads,” but it proved to be good deal more than that. The most challenging part is dealing with the public, he said.

“I would unconsciously raise my voice sometimes, but that didn’t always go down well,” he said. “So I would apologize and say that perhaps I didn’t make myself clear enough. I have learned to become more patient.”

Li said more people now step back behind pedestrian lines instead of ignoring him when he blows his whistle at them.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Li Chunfa stands at the crossroads of Changyang and Longchang roads to guide traffic.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Li Chunfa asks a biker to step back at a red light.

As an out-of-towner, Li spent hours of time off work getting to know the streets – the locations of bus stops, Metro stations, schools and hospitals. That way he could be of assistance when people stop to ask for directions.

Not all these foot soldiers want to be generals. Take the case of 26-year-old Shi Long, an assistant traffic officer in the Putuo District. He has won multiple awards for his excellent work, but he has declined to be promoted to squad leader.

Shi is especially adept at spotting illegal e-bikes. He tirelessly walks in what he counts as up to 20,000 steps a day during his six hours on the beat.

“I’m not good at commanding other people,” he said. “I’m my best at doing my job.”

The Henan native, who started to work in Shanghai at the beginning of 2016, said he chose this job because he always admired traffic police officers.

Standing in the middle of the busy intersection of Wuning and Changshou roads, he waves his arms and turns his body in all directions, keeping smooth traffic flow. He said he is living his dream.

“I feel I have accomplished something when traffic flows freely and when a pedestrian stops jaywalking upon seeing me,” he said.

Traffic Officer Zhao, a seasoned policeman and Shi’s supervisor at the No. 1 Traffic Police Squad in Putuo, said he is proud of the assistants, many of whom have been inspired by the example Shi sets.

“Most of the assistants remain on the job with us after the first two years because they love what they do and aim for excellence,” he said.

Zhao said sometimes the assistants are nudged, pushed or even knocked down by e-bike riders who don’t respect their authority.

“We told our assistants not to stand in front of an e-bike or a car operated by a potential traffic violator, or to stand in the middle of a motor lane, so as to better protect themselves,” he said.

The traffic assistants are equipped with video recorders to track their work and provide evidence when disputes arise.

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