Bite of Shanghai: Tour de Shanghai

On Commuting…

One of the first challenges about moving to a new place, of course, is figuring out how to get around. Throw in a three year-old and a belly that’s ever expanding to accommodate the Kid’s imminent little brother, and the simple task of going to the grocery store can feel a bit overwhelming.


(The grocery shopping problem, incidentally, is compounded by the fact that I’ve already accumulated at least 5 different destinations depending on the type of everyday item I need: the nearby wet market for common fruits and veggies, as well as live chickens, killed, plucked and beheaded–be-footed, too, upon request–while you wait; the fancy produce stand for more exotic offerings like avocados, fresh basil, grapes, and decent salad lettuce; the ‘local’ supermarket for rice, pasta, milk, juice, oatmeal, sugar, paper towels, and any type of pork product that you can imagine–freshly hacked by the butcher and flung, unwrapped and unmarked, into large bins through which dozens of shoppers at a time can rummage; the ‘expat’ supermarket for sandwich bread, cheese, kosher salt, all-purpose flour, olive oil, coffee, and other imported or ‘luxury’ items; and the smaller, specialty shops that carry exclusively imported goods like Mexican canned green chiles, whole wheat crackers and biscuits, micro-brewed beer and palatable wine, grain-feed beef and free-range chicken, chocolate chips for baking, and the surprisingly hard to find black tea. Some of these places are a 5 to 30 minute walk, some only accessible by metro or taxi, and naturally all of them are in opposite directions from one another with my flat as the central point.)


But this post is not primarily about food (she says grudgingly as she shifts her focus with difficulty away from contemplations of dinner tonight and remembrances of her first Shanghai shopping debacle, to be recounted later).


This post is about a heroic quest to get the Kid to preschool before 9 am while saving the environment, one trip at a time. In other words, I’ve become a bike commuter.


The preschool (a bilingual institution with a predominantly Chinese enrollment that has somewhat embarrassingly named itself ‘Little Eton’) is located just south of where we live. It’s probably 2 miles (3ish km) from our place. However, more significantly, it’s about 3 massive intersections, 2 one-way streets running in the wrong direction, and a prime-time rush hour commute away. So it takes about:


35 minutes to walk–too far on a daily basis for a easily-distractable three year-old, which can easily stretch into an hour of meandering, or even worse, a stalemate where I am required to carry 30+ pounds of grumpy, squirmy humanity–


OR 15 to 30 minutes in a taxi depending on traffic and lights,


OR a 10 minute walk on one end PLUS a 10 minute subway stint if the train comes on time PLUS another 10 minute walk on the other end,


OR a consistent 18 minute ride by bike.


Our obvious winner? The 2-wheeled option, barring heavy rain or stifling humidity.


Conveniently, we bought bikes within our first couple weeks of living in Shanghai. It’s a city perfectly adapted to biking: almost completely flat, large enough for nice, wide driving lanes, spacious enough for big sidewalks with ample places for chaining up your bike in front of almost every shop or restaurant, and a significant portion of the population either too cheap or too poor to shell out the cash required for owning and maintaining a car (and in many cases a driver).


Not so conveniently, it’s also a city of anywhere from 18-23 million people, depending on whether you try to count ‘unregistered’ inhabitants, and in the morning and evening it feels like pretty much every single one of these many million residents is trying to get somewhere–in a hurry.


On the average day, the Kid and I set off on my single-speed, cruiser style bicycle, with the Kid strapped securely into both his helmet and his safety seat (that cost more than the bike itself), with backpack and purse stowed in the front basket, around 8:35 am. We immediately encounter obstacle #1: a left turn from our driveway onto the local two lane street, which is normally quiet but at this time of day is bustling with cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles, other bikes, and pedestrians.


Once safely negotiated, our entry into the morning traffic leads us to obstacle #2: a school zone. We actually pass two of these areas, and they are both teeming with kids and guardians trying to cross the street where there is no crosswalk, cars parking and double parking on the wrong side of the road to drop off, bikes weaving in and out of narrow gaps between starting and stopping vehicles, uniformed guards whose main purpose evidently is to stand around looking official, and always, insistently, the sound of a honking horn. You know, from that singular car or taxi that haunts every street in the city and remains convinced the crowd will miraculously disperse if only forcefully, repeatedly reminded of the inconvenience it is causing the aforementioned honker.


Then we reach the first of three major intersections. And by major, I mean not 3 or 4 way but at LEAST 5 way intersections with multiple lanes of traffic headed each direction. The biggest challenge here is that, if you don’t get a head start, you will never get through the light. If you’re going straight, you’ve got to contend with the oncoming traffic turning left, which inevitably leaps out into the intersection in anticipation of the green (there’s not always an arrow) and proceeds with its turn, each subsequent car shaving the angle just a little tighter than the car before it in order to beat YOU, the rightful occupier of the intersection.


Of course, God help you if you’re the one who needs to turn left, especially on a bike–your only option is to dart ahead of the oncoming traffic and try to time your bid for right of way so that you beat both the oncoming cars and bikes while also avoiding the pedestrians and the vehicles remaining from the previous light. (Fortunately we only have to turn left one time at a major intersection.)


Somehow, however, this loosely controlled chaos seems to work, and the Kid and I continue on to meet our final obstacle: a half mile stretch in a fenced-off bike lane. Now at first glance, a lane exclusively devoted to bikes and scooters sounds pretty blissful after the other challenges, right? But here, you are dealing with a situation where 2 or maybe 3 (very competently operated) bikes can ride abreast, and everyone is going different speeds. Unfortunately, I seem to ride at an awkward pace–faster than the average biker but slower than most motorized scooters or electric bicycles. So while I’m trying to pass the grandpa who is placidly pedaling his grandchild to school and not showing much interest in conforming to a straight trajectory, I’ve got honking, impatient scooters trying to get by me. The result is that a handful of times I’ve had to come to a screeching halt (OK, so I’m not going THAT fast…maybe it’s really just a halt) in order to avoid being cut off and/or run over.


Usually the Kid is happily singing his ABCs from behind me, blissfully unaware of the perils I am navigating. Usually we get to school, without major incident, before 8:50.


And usually, just when I’m unstrapping the Kid from his harness and smugly congratulating myself on my successful trip and adventurous nature, I’ll see some other expat go by. On HER bike. With a kid riding behind her. And ANOTHER kid in front of her. Holding two full shopping bags, and steering with one hand. Who is probably, after taking her kids to school, off to rescue some neglected orphan from his own personal Fagin in order to cook him an organic meal.

Oh well.


Laura T is an American expat from the Pacific Northwest, former high school English teacher, current French Concession resident, mom of two gorgeous kids and a brand new ShanghaiMamas blogger. Yay!

Image courtesy of rawich at