It's taken me several months to reach the point where I can adequately reflect on the maelstrom that is Shanghai traffic. As it, much more than children or colleagues, is likely to make my blood boil on any given day, I've spent a considerable amount of time thinking about it. I've also found that most expats have pondered it extensively, perhaps as they recognize it as the most likely source of their early demise. I have come to see that there are, in fact, four distinct and progressive schools of thought about why Shanghai drivers are so willing to risk life and limb, ---theirs, their family, and mine--- for the sake of a moment or two in traffic.
Get The Laowei theory stems from your initial reaction to almost being run down by a car: "Holy !@#% that guy was going to kill me!" This generally happens within an hour or two of arriving in Shanghai. Naturally, as you're many thousands of miles away from most people with any real cause to be so angry, you assume that it must be because you're foreign. That guy was out to get to you because you're here, messing up the aesthetics of his country and making vastly more money than he is, and he hates you for it. Or maybe he thinks he can run you over and you won't complain, because you don't speak Chinese. Or perhaps he just couldn't see your white skin in the light.
This theory only lasts a day or two. Quickly, you realize that the drivers will just as easily run their own grandmother down as your self-centered foreignness. And you feel bad for thinking it was all about race.
Usually, you're pushed into Poor Role Model theory when you ask about why the police drive around with their lights on. The inevitable answer is, "So they don't get hit in the traffic." Then it dawns on you, ---no one here actually does know how to drive! If they can't avoid hitting the police without extra-special precautions, what possible safety have you?
Somebody quickly reminds you that, a generation ago, there were very few drivers in China. The vast majority of the population was, and is, on bicycle, scooter or motorbike. This means that a lot of the newly rich did not grow up watching their parents obey the traffic laws, respect pedestrians, or even make a proper left turn. They simply have no idea how it's done. The closest thing most people have to driving role models are taxi cab drivers, ---people with a tremendous economic incentive to drive as close to the edge as possible.
Red Light – Green Light theory takes over after several months of observation. Perhaps you're walking to Carrefour, as I was, and in the process of crossing the street with a crowd of about three dozen, as cars begin making a left turn in front of you. You keep walking, they keep turning, ever sharper as you walk forward. Rather than turn around or behind the group of pedestrians, they continue turning left into the wrong side of the street! A glance behind shows that, yes, they are turning left into on-coming traffic and then making an abrupt u-turn around the median. All this, to avoid driving ten feet to make their left behind you, or waiting ten seconds until you finish crossing the street.
No one, you realize, could possibly think that this sort of driving is an earnest mistake. It's an intentional, desperate effort to get ahead. Ahead of you. Ahead of anyone. China's recent history is littered with power changes. In just the last hundred years, it's gone from Mandate of Heaven to Good Republic to Corrupt Republic to Occupation to Workers Unite! to Workers Unite, Really! to Getting Rich is Glorious! Odds are, the parents of anyone driving, and possibly the drivers themselves, experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand. They know the stakes; the potential to lose everything is very real to them. So, right now, in the middle of a left turn, that driver also knows that it's their chance to get to where they're going, make some money and enjoy the middle class until the rules are changed again. And you're standing in their way? Fool.
RLGL Theory is persuasive, until you realize that the people in the cars are far too smart to think that running you over will save time and far too proud of the vehicle to let your blood stain their hood. So you're pressed to come up with something new and more potent, Car As Status Symbol Theory is just that.
In the States, whether or not you drive is a poor indicator of your station in life. Outside of the fantastically wealthy and abysmally poor, both of which ironically tend to be driven, most people across the social status spectrum drive. The moderately rich might drive nicer, newer, cleaner cars than the moderately poor, but they all still drive.
Not so in China. There's no need to remind anyone here that driving is a privilege, not a right.
In China, at least in Shanghai, your mode of transport is a major display of your status. Old people, little children, and the dregs who can't afford a bicycle, walk. Everybody else rides a bike or takes a bus or the subway, or some combination. From a bike, the up-and-coming can advance to an electric bike. From there, an electric scooter or perhaps, if business is swell, a gas-powered scooter, is a clear improvement. Penultimately, one moves about in a taxi. A single commute-length taxi ride costs between a twentieth and a fifth of a cheap bike, depending on commute and bike, but either away one is clearly asserting a vastly higher station than those rolling about in the elements. Finally, the high achiever can reach the car. A woman driving to work in a car, has set herself above five lesser levels of society. Everyone who sees her on her daily journey should know: She has arrived. So why brake for these lesser cretins? And the sentiment continues on back down. Motor scooters driving on the sidewalk earnestly honk in the expectation that the electric bikes will get out of their way. The electric bikes have no qualms about cutting in front of their human-powered cousins. Each mode of transport is owed the deference their owner has paid for.
And everyone, truly everyone, expects that you'll get out of their way, you silly walking fool. Get it together! Who do you think you are? Where do you think you are? These people aren't driving this way because they want to kill you, don't know better or feel like they must. They're driving this way because they can. They've earned it and you haven't.