Launching Yourself as a Shanghai Scooter Driver

By Danielle LeClerc

Your brain tries to catch up with your body. You see that you’re airborne, and while your synapses bridge the gap, you try to remember how you lost contact with the ground. Seconds stretch as you wait to reconnect with gravity, and a blur of bikes and buses, pavement and pedestrians is suspended all around you. In the adrenaline-dense space between realizing you’ve had a traffic accident and landing with the consequences, while you’re still flying, you begin to process how it happened and what mistake you made. None of this was your fault, of course, at least not as you’ll tell it later. But before your hippocampus works out an excuse, let’s acknowledge that you probably just made one of the four classic mistakes of safe scootering in Shanghai.

Mistake #1: You forgot to shoulder check. You had to make a quick right-turn or get around the old man going 2km/h with each knee at 90° to his bicycle. Fair enough. Buzzing through downtown Shanghai on an electric scooter is a tight wave of sudden lane changes; you’re entitled to dominate all the pavement you can get your wheels on. The timid take taxis. So you had ten minutes to get from People’s Square to the Bund and, flush with speed and stimulus, you zagged and locked wheels with the McDonald’s delivery scooter tight on your flank. It was his fault: he was following too close. But next time, when the bruises fade and you get back on your bike, remember to shoulder check. There’s usually someone there.

Mistake #2: You panicked while braking. You were gliding through the French Concession with the wind tickling your hair and fiddling the high, shady canopy of the Paris-import trees lining the street. Suddenly a hard little knot of a granny caned her way out from between two parked cars. In that moment, mind’s-eying an elderly citizen under the wheels of your bike, you clamped hard on your brakes. And swerved. Faced with the prospect of a crowd of locals pointing fingers and levelling judgmental Shanghainese at you (never mind that she was J-walking), your reaction was natural. Sadly for you, two-wheeled vehicles only stay upright if their wheels keep spinning. Now you’re falling toward the pavement and waiting to find out what the casualties will be. No one could blame you; but next time, hit your brakes and keep your wheels straight - or swerve. Just don’t do both. The good news is, because you tend to lean away from collisions, the granny should be fine, even if you’re not.

Mistake #3: You were too quiet. An average-sized electric scooter sold in Shanghai goes 50-70km/hr, runs silent, and has a horn that sounds like a Looney-Tunes roadrunner. It’s designed for disaster. Maybe you were coasting through a market street on your way to get some dumplings and a latte and you flew past an alley without beeping. Because you were silent, the taxi driver sliding out of that alley (while playing poker on his iPhone) neither saw nor heard you. If you’re lucky, the taxi tapped you broadside. If not, you’ve gone over its hood and are traveling to the asphalt on the other side. After you find out how much gravel you will have to pick from your skin and you go out to ride again, remember to use your horn to let people know you’re coming. Living in a city of thirty-four million hasn’t taught us to look where we’re going, and you are driving a silent vehicle. You’re not to blame for the lunatic traffic conditions; but if you don’t like the feel of rubbing alcohol in fresh road rash, use your horn.

Mistake #4: You got distracted. You were driving down HengShan bar-street when you saw a man and a monkey begging together on the sidewalk, and for just one second you took your eyes off the road. Shanghai traffic flows with the balletic chaos of a swarm of bees: no one stops and no one moves in a straight line. Bicycles needle between dead-locked cars; motorcycles hedge traffic lights; and huffing buses squeeze scooters to the curb. At the same time, sidewalks swirl with new restaurants, colourful characters, and giant fibreglass statues of cartoon kittens. Worse, assuming it were easy to maintain road-focus, it’s still not enough. You need to see a few seconds into the future. That’s why, though you only got half an eyeful of monkey, it was enough that you missed the lights of that parked car blinking on just before it pulled out in front of you. Or the truck that signalled before making a murderous right turn across your path. Or that bus getting ready to swallow the intersection in a wide-arced turn. While the doctor’s putting in stitches (with luck they’ll have anaesthetic), remind yourself that Shanghai drivers rarely shoulder check; that people panic while braking; that silent, inbound, motorized projectiles are all around you; and that no one else is paying much attention to the road. In other words, you can only predict yourself.

After the stitches get picked out, the Band-Aids drop off, and your skin goes back to a normal colour, you’ll have a good battle story and a few scars. These you can share with other scooter drivers as they trade semi-fictionalized accounts of their crashes (none of which were their fault). Some might argue that the only mistake you made was getting on a scooter in the first place. It is dangerous. But we who know what it’s like to race to work through the cool morning air, to zip around commuters in traffic-jammed taxis, to fly past the subway crush and feel that our bikes are a part of our bodies, we don’t take public transportation. All of us scooter drivers, like you, have had our crashes. We all get back on.

Danielle LeClerc is a Canadian alien who, in 2007, left the grey-grind of Western life for something shabbier, yet shinier, in Asia. She's been a writer and editor at Moon Travel Guides and Red Pepper Green Pepper travel TV show and now lives in Shanghai. Danielle performs her original work locally, and her short stories and articles can be found around town and online.