The Vortex: I (have been) walk(ing) hard for my money!


Duibuqi duzhe! Wo hai zai zheli! (Sorry readers! I am still here!)


I am remiss, as it has now been a month since I promised you three months worth of blogs! In my defense, I have been busy learning Chinese (as you can obviously see from my new-found pinyin “proficiency”), taking rather odd Chinese health exams required for a resident permit (so I can actually enter and leave the country as I wish), attempting to decipher the products at Chinese supermarkets (note, congee is not the same thing as arborio rice!), finding out that service is a four-letter word in China (unfortunately during my Peking-duck birthday celebration), and scouring the city to find black beans (the Cuban kind, not the Chinese-that-never-soften-no-matter-how-long-you-boil kind). And oh yeah, I have indeed been doing a lot of walking (hard) for my money – read: dodging motorbikes, cars, buses, and unidentified moving objects while walking all over Shanghai. Sure, most of my walks thus far have been within the first ring, but hopefully today’s blog about my close encounters of the first-to-second-ring kind will help explain why I haven’t strayed too far afoot as often as planned (although I will!).


In keeping with the spirit of this blog series’ namesake, I’ve taken to walking pretty much anywhere within a 10k radius of my Xuhui apartment. A few weeks ago, I had a meeting at the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport’s (SLOCAT) office in downtown Gubei, a close-in “suburb” (although this is denser than ANY suburb you’ve ever stepped foot on in the the US!). I readily mapped my route on Google maps (first rookie mistake) — 55 minutes, perfect! I could easily walk there. I was particularly excited for this walk as I had been cooped up in my apartment courtesy of Typhoon Fitow. I planned my day around this walking adventure/meeting, giving myself enough wiggle room to take pictures (and get lost – pretty much inevitable) along the way.


So let’s get started…


The beginning of my walk was just lovely.


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Tree-lined, narrow streets, nice-sized sidewalks, street food, outdoor dining – so many of the ingredients that make up great streets (as long as you ignore the fact that no motorized vehicles EVER yield to those of us on two legs). I also came across this charming make-shift street furniture outside of a bookstore – DIY urbanism at its finest! To boot, I was excellently navigating my way with my new-but-quickly-wearing-appendage – my Streetwise Shanghai map (I don’t care that my fiance questions my adeptness as a planner for being so dependent on it!).


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Soon, however, human-scaled intersections made way to somewhat “overweight” intersections, with barricaded medians and more curving (less yield-inducing) turning radii. While the sidewalks on these roads tended to be wider, the bloated width of the streets, the far-too-setback, towering, characterless buildings, and the lack of street trees killed the proportions of the street. Those wide sidewalks may have well been beautiful pieces of French brie on gutter-oil fried skewers. Unfortunately, these less-than-appetizing sidewalks were an omen of things to come. 

As I approached the inner ring road I was to cross to get to my destination, I started to wonder whether my tenacity to take this (entire) city by foot was somewhat ill-advised. And then I came across this. 


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You see, that, my friends, is a tunnel. Not a pedestrian underpass. A tunnel. For vehicles. A tunnel that Google Maps proposed I traverse to get to the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport’s office. Ok, to my trusty map I turned. All I needed to do was figure out a way to get to the other side of Xinhua Rd. I proceeded to the path intended for pedestrians – the ever-ubiquitous Chinese pedestrian overpass – and continued to document the increasingly harrowing nature of the “urban design” along my walk.


Look how narrow the sidewalk gets where this pedestrian is turning the corner...

Look how narrow the sidewalk gets where this pedestrian is turning the corner…

Once you turn that corner, you come across this most pathetic of urban public spaces...I'll bet good money you'll never spy anyone using it.

Once you turn that corner, you come across this most pathetic of urban public spaces…I’ll bet good money you’ll never spy anyone using it.

This is the approaching pedestrian overpass

This is the approaching pedestrian overpass

This is the entrance to the overpass. The distance between the end of the stairway and the walk is no more than two feet.

This is the entrance to the overpass. The distance between the end of the stairway and the walk is no more than two feet.


The good news is that I made it safely across the overpass. The bad news is once I got back on solid ground, I embarked on what I can only describe as some ill-fated beta version of Mario Brothers or Frogger (dating myself, I know) created by sadist former Sim City video game designers, in which the lead was now played by yours truly – the walkability heroine – and the ultimate aim was to arrive at SLOCAT and deliver the urban design keys that would save China, while overcoming pedestrian obstacles along the way. In spite of my not-so-great sense of re-direction, (the heroine’s achilles heel), I managed to find Xinhua road again, although I had to navigate one of the largest intersections I’ve ever seen or crossed (although I break that record weekly here in Shanghai) to rediscover it. The problem is, I had entered the vortex in so doing. The place where Shanghai’s inner ring road intersects with Yan’an Rd, a major elevated highway, and where Zhongshan Rd, one of the largest arterials in the City, runs ground-level along side the inner ring. Every time I thought I’d made it to the next level in the “game,” I kept running into dead ends. Running over 30-minutes late to my meeting, I hailed a taxi (don’t worry, I’d accumulated enough “points” in the game to earn one motorized ride and I had to make it to SLOCAT somehow, China’s future depended on it!). I eventually got to my meeting and we commiserated over the pitfalls of my ill-fated journey.


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This is the vortex. Notice the ironically situated “parks” inside the hourglass-shaped massive intersection.


All kidding and personal frustration aside, and as fun as playing this kind of video game might seem, this is real. Once you leave the land of milk and honey behind (AKA: The French Concession/the center city), Shanghai’s urban design landscape becomes exhilarating for all of the wrong reasons. Walkability – or the lack thereof – is a matter of life and death in China, both in the here and now in terms of pedestrian safety, and moving forward as China attempts to forge its own path to sustainability. If we cannot traverse that path on foot, we’re all going to face a fate much worse than being caught in that vortex – and we won’t just be able to call upon cabbies to get us out of it!


This, my friends, is why I am in China! Stay tuned…





  1. I believe that you perfectly captured on my daily life in Hangzhou (and love-hate affair with Google maps). When I first moved to China, I prided myself on a decent sense of direction. However, walking, as a means of getting somewhere, feels like a constant maze. I have yet to be on time! In fact, I play a game without myself where I build in “get lost” time into my schedule. I set my watch: wander around trying to find my way for 40 minutes. If I have not yet figured out where I am going after this time limit, I will hail a taxi.

    I do have a question about urban public spaces. This may be silly, but why are there no/very few public benches in China? When I was in Shanghai, my friends and I wandered around for hours and never had the opportunity to sit down (unless you’re paying in a cafe). I’m accustomed to public benches and sitting areas for taking breaks during the day.

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