Greater Shanghai is massive. Learning how to get around may initially feel like an overwhelming task. Keep in mind, however, that you don’t need to know the entire city. With time and patience, you’ll become familiar with the trains, roads, highways, bridges, alleys and lanes in the neighborhoods that you visit most.
Most of the central areas frequented by expats are grouped together and manageable. Once inside a neighbourhood, getting around on foot or with a short taxi ride is relatively easy. The city’s infrastructure was vastly upgraded for the 2010 World Expo, and is now widely considered to be the best in mainland China. Morning and evening weekday traffic is dense and aggressive, with frequent gridlock. This is colorfully referred to by some people as ‘crush hour’, in reference to the throngs of commuters cramming onto roads and into buses and trains. Most expat families end up using several forms of transportation, depending on where they live and which areas they frequent for shopping, recreation or nightlife.
Shanghai streets are governed by a rough grid system and characterized by dense vehicle traffic, scooters, bicycles, street vendors and, in some central areas such as Jing’an and People’s Square, throngs of pedestrians. Despite the immense resources that the city invests in transport infrastructure, it can’t seem to keep up with a burgeoning middle class that continues to crowd streets and motorways with new vehicles.
The neighborhoods of central Shanghai are surrounded by one principal ring road, Zhongshan Lu, which links Puxi to Pudong via the Nanpu Bridge. The city is bisected east to west by Yan’an Lu, an elevated highway illuminated by red and blue neon. The principal north to south elevated freeway is Gonghe Xin Lu / Chongqing Nan Lu. The most important ground-level streets are Huaihai Lu and Nanjing Lu, which are main shopping and dining streets. Fuxing Lu cuts through the heart of Puxi and leads into the Fuxing Tunnel, which runs under the Huangpu River into the financial district of Lujiazui in Pudong.
All street signs are written in both Chinese and Pinyin. The range of street addresses on each block and main compass directions are posted on the street signs, and most locals and expats use intersections as reference points. However, lanes have their own internal numbering. For example, a street with numbers 46 and 50 could have a Lane 48 between them, which may contain several of its own numbers. Large, newer developments also have compound building numbers within a single street address.
Shanghai’s major downtown north-south streets are named after provinces, and east-west streets are named after Chinese cities. The street name is normally followed by a direction – dong (east), xi (west), bei (north), nan (south) or zhong (middle) – then the word for the street, usually lu but sometimes jie. For example, Henan Road is Henan Bei Lu north of Suzhou Creek, then becomes Henan Zhong Lu for several blocks, before changing into Henan Nan Lu south of the bisecting Yan’an Dong Lu freeway.
Taxis are generally a cheap and efficient way for a family to get around Shanghai, traffic and weather permitting. There are over 45,000 taxis operating in the city, belonging to several private companies. They’re usually easy to flag down unless it’s raining, in which case be prepared to wait for the weather to clear or find the nearest Metro. A vacant taxi is more difficult to find during rush hour (7:30am to 9am and 5pm to 7:30pm). At night, you can identify an available taxi by the green-lit lettering on top or on the dashboard of the passenger side. Red, of course, means it’s in use. During the day, it can be hard to make out and it’s common to try to wave down taxis before realizing they’re occupied.
Most taxi drivers are honest and scrupulously abide by the meter. As of October 2015, taxi fares start at RMB14 for the first three kilometres, and RMB2.5 for each additional kilometre (up to 15km). Beyond 15km, the fare rises to RMB3.75 per km. There is a waiting time fee of RMB4 per 5 mins at peak times. Tipping is not expected. To avoid dealing with driver grumbles, for normal fares it’s best to pay with something smaller than an RMB100 note, and the most convenient payment method is a stored-value transport card (see jiaotong ka below). Most drivers speak limited or no English, so be prepared to show them your destination in Chinese characters. If you don’t have the address in Chinese, provide the nearest intersection. At the end of the ride, the driver will supply you with a receipt (fa piao), which shows the taxi number and the company telephone number – very useful information if you have a complaint or leave something behind.
The Shanghai Metro is the fastest and cheapest way to travel around the city, particularly if you need to cover long distances or travel during rush hour when above-ground traffic is at a standstill. It’s also clean, safe, far quieter than the streets and provides signs in English. Navigating the subway system is easy, and maps of the entire Metro system are posted in each station. As the service improves and the network grows, it’s an increasingly popular way to commute among expats.
Trains are almost always on time and depart every 3-5 minutes in central areas. Single tickets cost RMB3-7, or alternatively you can purchase a stored-value transport card (jiaotong ka) from a booth, which saves you buying a ticket each time you enter the Metro and can be used as a free transfer between some of the lines that don’t connect physically. The jiaotong ka, which can also be used on taxis and buses, can be purchased for RMB100, with an RMB30 deposit refundable when the card is returned. At the time of writing, there are 11 Metro lines and 277 stations open, with several more on pace to be completed by 2020. As recently as 2005, there were only three lines. Expansion has been nothing less than extraordinary, spurred by the 2010 World Expo.
On the negative side, crowds are almost unbearable during the daily rush hours, when the Metro operates at overcapacity. Commuters literally push each other into crammed subway cars. Another inconvenience is the lack of night service. Most lines initiate their final run at 10pm, meaning that if you’re out later than that, be prepared to take a taxi.
Shanghai has well over a thousand bus routes, taking commuters to and from every corner of the vast metropolis. Most buses are now air-conditioned and make announcements in English; however, they’re often very crowded and run confusing routes, and you may find yourself stuck in traffic jams during rush hour. For these reasons, bus travel is not recommended for newcomers. On the other hand, you may find a couple of handy routes that work for you. Fares are RMB2 or RMB3 per ride in cash or with a jiaotong ka.
Walking is a great way to explore and get around central neighbourhoods in Puxi. The sidewalks in the former French Concession districts of Huangpu and Xuhui, the old city area of Yu Yuan and the streets around People’s Square are particularly interesting and convenient places to walk, with restaurants, shops and housing all situated next to one another as in many North American and European cities. In more suburban neighborhoods such as Hongqiao and Huacao, walking is far less convenient as distances are greater and streets less clearly marked.
Sidewalks in central neighbourhoods are well maintained, making for pleasant strolls and providing an opportunity to take in the dynamic urban environment. Take care when crossing the street at intersections, however, as vehicles turning right on a red (which is permitted) tend not to give way to pedestrians (which they are supposed to). Generally, Chinese drivers don’t respect the rights of pedestrians, and caution should be exercised any time you cross the street. Look left, then right, then left again; and be aware of bikes on both street and pavement (and from both directions). During rush hour, cyclists and scooters use pavements to bypass congested intersections. When possible, use underpasses and cross-walks manned by traffic marshals. Jaywalking will bring a whistle and some scolding from these marshals, but little more – they have no power except to shame. Still, do the decent thing and don’t make their thankless job any harder as they are paid little to stand in the heat or cold.
For many foreigners, life in Chinese cities conjures up images of throngs of bicycle commuters flowing to and fro on Chinese streets and alleys. However, this is no longer the case in Shanghai. The wealth generated in the past decade has resulted in an exponential increase in the number of cars on the road and their dominance over bicycle traffic. In fact, bicycles are now banned from many major roads, being the lowest on the pecking order after buses, trucks, taxis, cars and scooters. Therefore, cycling is not a recommended means of traversing the city. Nevertheless, it could still be a useful way to get around your own neighborhood and millions of Shanghainese still own and use bicycles as primary means of transport. The utility of a bicycle depends on the neighbourhood. Puxi areas have many good cycling streets, though congestion can make for a nerve-wracking commute. Outlying suburban areas, such as Jinqiao and Huacao, have wide streets that are safe for cycling, though distances are greater. Pudong has developed convenient, modern bike lanes suited for bicycle commutes.
Wherever you cycle in Shanghai, exercise caution around traffic and intersections. Honking and beeping from vehicles and scooters is common and normally not as aggressive as it first seems; it’s irritating and rude, but the intention tends to be to make the point that “I’m here and I’m bigger than you are, watch out please!” Helmets are a rarity among Chinese cyclists, but highly recommended nonetheless. Invest in a heavy-duty lock, as petty bicycle theft is a common crime throughout the city.
If you have a valid driving licence from your home country, you’re eligible to apply for a licence in China. Before driving on your own, get to know the roads and flow of traffic by riding in a car for a few weeks. The mix of bicycles, scooters and pedestrians makes driving considerably more challenging than in many Western cities.
When driving in Shanghai it’s important to be aware that other vehicles and pedestrians don’t follow a ‘right of way’ rule as in most Western countries. Expect to see pedestrians walk out into busy traffic without looking, in apparent disregard for their own safety. Motorists brazenly merge into traffic or other lanes, forcing drivers to brake hard in order to avoid a collision. In the event of any collision – even the most minor fender bender – both drivers usually stop immediately (even on major motorways) to argue over who’s at fault and wait for the police. It will take time to become accustomed to the norms of Shanghai traffic flow. Don’t get distracted, as it could mean a serious accident.
To obtain a driving license, you’ll need to prepare the following documents:
- Health certificate
- Shanghai residence card
- China residence permit (original and a copy)
- Foreign driving license and translated version
The process is as follows:
Go to the Ministry of Automobiles, 1101 Zhongshan Bei Yi Lu (6516 8168 ext 54787), where you will be given two application forms which must be filled out in Chinese.
The original driving licence must be translated into Chinese. This can be done by any official translation service. Shanghai International Studies University on Dalian Xi Lu and The Translation Company of Shanghai at the Foreign Language University on 184 Xitiyuhui Lu are both used to providing this service.
With the completed application and RMB150, you need to obtain a certificate of health at the Expatriate Department of any hospital above district level.
Along with the certificates and documents mentioned above, bring a photo and take the multiple choice test at the Ministry of Automobiles.
If you’ve been driving for less than three years, a road test is also required. Upon completion, you can return one week later to pick up your licence, a copy of which must be turned into the Ministry of Automobiles. The test is given Monday through Thursday 8:30- 11am and 1:30-3:30pm.
Hiring a Driver
Shanghai traffic is only getting worse, and it can be a massive relief to remove the aggravation of rush hour taxi chasing, public transport or fighting the way home in your own car. It’s popular and affordable, and drivers are usually extremely flexible when it comes to working hours and duties. If your work commute takes you between Lujiazui and Gubei, central Puxi to Jinqiao or some other bridge and tunnel route, you’ll be particularly grateful to sit back and read or get some work done.
But they’re not just for commuting. A driver can ferry kids around to sports practice or music lessons, pick up teenagers after parties, wait for you while you shop, take you off to Suzhou for the day. Particularly if you live in Huacao, Jinqiao or other places where you may be off the road and sorting out a taxi takes time, a driver is a boon. Most of them are eager for extra work, so even if a driver doesn’t usually work weekends, if you let him know in good time he’ll be happy to take on the work. They work long hours and, like taxi drivers, are often leasing the cars, so you’re probably helping him out rather than inconveniencing him.
You’re probably looking at RMB2,000-3,000 a month, plus the cost of fuel, for an on-call driver. Depending on family size and duties, you could also consider a live-in driver using your own car. Discuss in advance whether weekends cost extra, if there are any days they cannot work, and so on. If you find a good driver, you’ll want to make sure he’s happy and not feeling underpaid and underappreciated. Finding a driver is similar to finding an ayi: look for personal recommendations first and foremost, then look at expat websites and magazines.
Cross-cultural misunderstanding is generally easy enough to move through while living in Shanghai, and while this is also the case with a driver, the consequences could be more serious. This is definitely a situation where it’s very important to work out all the ground rules with your driver in advance. For example, you’ll probably want to make sure he (and it will be a he – as with taxis, there are few professional female drivers here) doesn’t smoke in the car at any time, even when he’s waiting for you, and that he keeps the car clean both inside and out. A professional driver will be proud of his work, and may already be conscientious about things like this, particularly if he has experience driving for foreigners – but to avoid problems, leave nothing unstated. Tell him you had these problems with your driver back in your own country if you want to avoid the sense that you’re teaching him manners. Using a checklist for things like washing and vacuuming on a regular basis can be a very productive approach, and you can ask him to keep the fa piao from when he fills up the car.
You should also discuss his approach to driving safety. He’ll probably start with the mindset that priority A, B and C is getting you to your destination as fast as possible, and with the aim of being professional drive accordingly. If you take the time to explain that you are most interested in a smooth, safe drive, particularly if you have children, and that you are going to be much more unhappy with aggressive driving than occasional lateness, both you and he will feel more secure – and you can feel you’re doing your part to improve the civility of Shanghai traffic! Ask him to avoid sounding his horn and to resist pushing through pedestrians when turning right on red (a legal but abused maneuver here). Make it clear that wearing seatbelts is a must for both him and you, and that he is to insist your children wear them when you’re not there. This is easier now that seatbelts are also mandatory in taxis here – there was a time when the driver was insulted if you tried to use yours.
Remember that the driver spends most of his life in the car, whether it belongs to you, him or the company he works for, and go easy on him. He’ll probably end up eating and drinking in the car, and he’ll need something to read and somewhere to keep his cigarettes for when he steps out for a smoke. Ultimately, the point is communication. Don’t assume that certain things are understood, and don’t assume the driver is to blame if he does something you dislike but which you have not discussed.
In terms of communication, an experienced driver will probably speak a few English words, enough to understand locations and times, whether to wait or drop people off and return, and so on. Picking up the key words you’ll need in Mandarin will help a lot though, and in the early days – particularly when sorting out the details – you should work through someone who speaks the language. Having key addresses available in Chinese characters on your phone will help a lot. There are drivers who speak better English, but they’re few and far between and generally already doing very well for themselves.
As with an ayi, be aware that he may be living far from his family, or may rarely have days off to spend with them, so respect his need to be with them during national holidays, particularly Spring Festival, when if all has gone well you should show your appreciation by giving him a hong bao with about a month’s salary. Of course, holiday season may be exactly when you’d like to take a road trip with him at the wheel. Discuss this with him well in advance, making it clear that you will not be unhappy if he demurs, and there is a good chance he will be willing to make the extra money. Make sure you pay him well in this case.
With a little preparation and a good working relationship, you’ll find a driver more than worth the expense, freeing you up to spend more of your time enjoying the city and less of it figuring out how to get from place to place.