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Cycling shanghai- travel story- STREET SIGN - SHANGHAI OLD TOWN
street sign in Shanghai’s old neighborhood


Before moving to Shanghai I’d been repeatedly warned about the city’s extremely chaotic and dangerous traffic. I’d formed the distinct impression that bicycling in Shanghai would amount to a suicide mission. So I’d left my bike in KL, Malaysia and come to check traffic conditions myself before attempting to ‘risk’ cycling. I should have known the warnings were directed at westerners who’d never lived in Asia and the general non-cycling public. On my first day wandering around Shanghai’s old neighborhoods I realized cycling here would be a breeze. Sure traffic was a bit chaotic, like all Asian traffic, but it was slow-moving and only moderately crowded. Or so I thought…  I promptly bought myself a bike.


Cycling shanghai- travel story-
typical street in Shanghai’s old  neighborhood


I eagerly ventured onto Shanghai’s streets and quickly discovered the wonders of pedaling in China, where cycling has been part of daily life for decades. Thousands of people still cycle in Shanghai, so I suddenly had bike companions. I discovered Shanghai’s wide cycling lanes which are often thoughtfully separated from motor traffic by low fences. I found designated bicycle parking areas throughout the city. And drivers were accustomed to watching out for cyclists.


Cycling lanes? Bicycle parking lots? Fellow cyclists? That was unheard of in the SE Asian countries I’d been pedaling for the past ten years. Cycling in Shanghai was easy, marvelous. I was happy as a clam. Too bad clams are short-lived.


Cycling shanghai- travel story-


My enthusiasm soon waned. I’d made the reasonable assumption that cycling lanes were JUST for cyclists. Wrong. ‘Our’ lanes are also used by motorcycles, pedestrians, people waiting for buses, taxis stopping to pick up/let out passengers, parked delivery trucks and cars accessing driveways. Far from shielding cyclists from traffic, cycling lanes are nearly as chaotic and hazardous as the roads. They entail deep concentration and constant dodging of people and vehicles.


Then I learned the real down side of pedaling in China: rules. Cycling rules. Lots of them. What a shock. I was not accustomed to bike rules in Asia. I’d always been allowed to ride anywhere, do anything. I could ride on roads, sidewalks, parks, beaches, fields and with or without my helmet. For ten years nobody had paid the least attention to me. Cycling rules simply do not exist in SE Asia.


Cycling shanghai- travel story- STREET SIGN - SHANGHAI OLD TOWN
stop before lines at intersections or risk a fine!


Not so in Shanghai. Cycling rules are plentiful and confusing. Some roads permit cyclists, some not. On some roads cyclists can pedal in one direction, but not the other. Some sidewalks allow cyclists, others not. Intersections present more regulations. Cyclists must stop before the zebra striping, not on it. Sometimes it’s required to dismount bicycles, but not always. Additionally, riders must stop whenever traffic cops tell them, usually for no clear reason. ‘Never jay walk’ seems to be Shanghai’s one fixed rule.


These complex regulations were a muddle to me, a Chinese-illiterate American. I gathered clues by watching other cyclists and trying to remember specific roads. Quite surprisingly, Chinese citizens are real ‘traffic-rule rebels,’ attempting to break rules as often as possible. This attitude has resulted in a huge force of traffic police at intersections. Unfortunately, most traffic officers are quite nasty. They glare at people. Yell at people. Grab people. Point at people.


Cycling shanghai- travel story-
unusually calm intersection policeman


Many times I’ve watched pedestrians in heated arguments with these intersection police. Behind them onlookers disrespectfully roll their eyes,
smirk, shake their heads and shrug their shoulders. And there’s lots more sneaking behind officers’ backs. At no-riding zones cyclists pretend to dismount when cops look their way but then stay on their bikes and continue riding when the cops turn their heads. People walk their bikes a short ways past police then hop back on to ride. A blatant ‘beat the cops’ game is in full swing. I have to admire the ‘traffic rebels’ spirit, nothing I’d ever expected of Communist Chinese.


I got caught in the cycling rules mayhem early on. My very first day riding I was stopped and ticketed. I had no clue why. The cop had also stopped several Chinese cyclists and was busy handing out tickets. The locals seemed just as confused. A few attempted walking away. Several stood yelling at the cop. Everyone was thoroughly disgusted.


Hmm… Perhaps cycling in Shanghai wasn’t as rosy as I’d first imagined? Unfortunately, I further discovered that besides chaotic cycling lanes, confusing rules and angry traffic cops, I also had to contend with Shanghai’s reckless driving habits.


Cycling shanghai- travel story-
racing through turns in Shanghai


First I had to grasp their peculiar style of turning right on red lights. That’s a handy rule in the USA: stop at the light, if no cars are coming, make the turn. However, in Shanghai it works like this: When drivers approach a red light they just proceed as if there’s a green light. Drivers do not first stop, look, then turn. Nor do they slow down, look and turn. They simply race along at full speed into the turn, often entering traffic flowing across them without even pausing.


Drivers also use this ‘race ahead into the turn’ technique on green lights. That makes sense except… the cycling lane is on their right-hand side. Quite regularly as cyclists are proceeding through a green light cars suddenly come up from behind and turn across in front of them at full speed with no warning. Drivers take no heed of cyclists who, technically, have the right of way. Hmm, I’d thought drivers were accustomed to integrating cyclists on the roads. Perhaps I’d been mistaken.


Cycling shanghai- travel story-
traffic obediently waiting to play ‘chicken’


Another hazard occurs at intersections when lights turn from red to green. Traffic rapidly proceeds forward. In most countries vehicles turning left, across the forward-moving traffic, must wait. Cars going straight on have right of way. In Shanghai, when the light turns green all cars turning left race into their turn in front of the oncoming traffic, including cyclists. The outcome is a ‘game of chicken’ in the middle of intersections to see who’s going to stop, who’s going to get through first. On a bicycle ‘chicken’ is extremely nerve-wracking. ‘Chicken’ happens at every intersection, with every changing green light.


The final habit I gradually decipher-ed proved that red lights don’t mean people are going to stop. Every day I watch cyclists and cars proceeding straight through red lights without stopping or even slowing down. Drivers don’t even seem to look ahead or make sure the way is clear. They just barrel through as if the light didn’t exist. Apparently, red and green lights are merely indications of what drivers should do, not what they will do.


Cycling shanghai- travel story-
typical chaotic traffic in Shanghai


After spending a month figuring out Shanghai’s complex cycling ‘rules’ and wacky driving habits I’m finally able to ride relatively safely. When approaching green lights I always pause first, look carefully in all directions for vehicles that might run me down then move ahead cautiously through the intersection. Vehicles could be racing up from behind or turning across in front. They could be driving straight through red lights or turning through green lights. I also keep my eyes peeled for traffic cops.


Whew, I feel exhausted just thinking about it all from the safety of my bedroom. Alas, my initial excitement at discovering Shanghai’s masses of friendly cyclists and wide cycling lanes has deteriorated to the conclusion that perhaps guidebooks are correct in warning everyone except the most hardened cyclists to avoid bicycling on Shanghai’s chaotic roads. While I’ve managed to survive, and actually enjoy, my pedaling excursions around the city, I certainly wouldn’t recommend cycling to new arrivals or novice cyclists. I’d advise potential cyclists to select a different Asian city and give Shanghai a miss.


Reporting from the road.   Happy trails, Lash
Have you ever cycled in Shanghai? What were your experiences? 
What cities do you enjoy cycling? 


Did you know I wrote a guidebook to touring Bali by bicycle? 

If this sounds like fun to you, check out my guidebook:

Cycling Bali Guidebook - Lash - LashWorldTour - ebook

Cycling Bali: Guidebook to Circumnavigating Bali by Bicycle by Lash/ LashWorldTour

The Cycling Bali guidebook explains everything you need to travel around Bali by bicycle.

It starts with a thorough introduction to Bali island, arrivals, and all the basics for travelers to ‘Island of Gods’.

The guide then focuses on cycling, detailing Bali’s road, weather, topography and cycling conditions plus a detailed explanation of preparing to cycle-travel, including training, what to take cycling, tool kits and parts, bike maintenance, and even how to take your bike on an airplane.   READ MORE

buy print version     check here for pdf and eBook versions



You might also enjoy reading some of my other stories about Shanghai:


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  1. Anonymous

    that is a good read and very informative; sometimes in Chiang Mai I feel threatened as a cyclist but it is a small city and it is easy to get off onto the sois; plus as you say cyclists are more or less invisible- certainly to traffic police. I am not sure I could live in Shanghai- even in NYC you can ride safely

  2. LASH

    Hi Toby. Glad you enjoyed the post.
    Yeah, if you love cycling Shanghai's not the best place to live. I didn't even mention the thickly polluted air!
    I've always felt pretty safe and very free cycling in all SE Asian countries. Drivers see cyclists because they're used to looking for motorbikes.
    I was definintely shocked to have RULES suddenly in Shanghai!
    Enjoy your cycling in Chiang Mai and thanks for stopping by! cheers, Lash

  3. Suzy

    Sounds like the ultimate challenge! I know I wouldn't make it out alive with all of those traffic rules and cars who don't believe in stopping.

  4. LASH

    Thanks for stopping by Suzy!
    I probably managed because I'd already been cycling in Asia for 17 years in lots of cities with heavy traffic. NOt sure even I could've done Shanghai as an Asian novice…

  5. crazy sexy fun traveler

    Like it! The photos are interesting :)

  6. LASH

    Glad you enjoyed the story and photos.. That's Shanghai!

  7. Leigh

    Great post – and the cycling sounds even crazier than Vietnam – which I thought was bad.

  8. LASH

    Yeah. I thought i could tackle any traffic.. and I did, but it was pretty nuts, especially all the rules! Vietnam I ENJOYED cyclign in! I guess that although the traffic in Vietnam is hectic, it moves pretty slowly because it's piled up. In Shanghai, it's fast and the drivers dont' obey the lights.

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