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lost in shanghai


The Chinese are about to overtake the U.S. as the number one car market. But is it good news?

From ORIENTAL OUTLOOK (DONGFANG ZHOUKAN) July 16th 2009 Print Edition


By Mina Tenison


China will overtake the U.S. as the number one car market any time now, according to many market analysts. For those in the automotive business in China, that’s great news and something to be happy about.

However, I don’t know whether this is something to truly rejoice in. In my four years here in Shanghai, I have noticed one friend after another succumb to the allure of car ownership. Previously, they walked, took buses, rode bicycles, and hailed cabs. But now many of them drive themselves to work and to meetings, and fill up at the petrol station. When I ask them about why they like owning a car, many of them say that they like the sense of freedom.

In fact, the bicycle I have is a hand-me-down from a Shanghai friend who bought a car and gave me her bicycle. When I told this to another friend of mine, I was told, “She upgraded and you downgraded.” That was totally true—in terms of the absolute value of the two items--but what she didn’t realize was that I was more than happy to downgrade.

The appeal of car ownership looms large in China. After decades and decades of relying on public transportation, Chinese people are happy to be at the helm, driving themselves to work, to school, and to weekend getaways. Some people say that it gives them a sense of control and a sense of privacy. Get into the car, close the door, and go.

For me, however, I find driving and owning a car a sheer burden. It’s the one thing that I am happy to be without in Shanghai. When I used to live in Los Angeles--where public transportation is limited and very badly organized--not having a car meant being handicapped. Driving 15 to 30 miles to get to an appointment or see a friend was routine, an every-day occurrence, and not to have a car meant going nowhere—unless you wanted to walk for hours or bicycle along dangerous roads. Furthermore, in most North American cities, taking taxis is prohibitively expensive and not a viable alternative. Much of North American life is like this: not having a car is like not having legs. (A friend living in the suburbs of a Canadian city says the same.)

The tragedy is that it didn’t have to be like this. Los Angeles in the 1930’s used to be network of tram systems and public transportation. But the trams were ripped out, and big highways put in to welcome the advent of automobiles. Now Los Angeles is a maze of highways and ever more distant suburban houses that make life without automobiles impossible.

Of course, there are cities and towns in America that are more similar to Shanghai—cities like New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—where public transportation makes having a car unnecessary.

But back in Shanghai, what has amazed me most is how many of my Chinese friends are buying cars that they don’t need. Once I sat down and added up the cost of owning a car with one friend and we concluded that it was an absurd cost compared to relying on public transportation, or even completely on taxi rides. But the new car purchasers say things like—‘it’s hard to get a taxi when it is raining’ or ‘I have to send my child to school.’

What many of these friends see as ‘freedom,’ or even a marker of status, I see as a burden—an extra cost, an extra parking ticket, an extra insurance obligation. What they see as independence, I see it as dependence—dependence on imported oil and spending money on filling up at the petrol station.

Transportation and the ability to get to places make a huge difference to a person’s productivity and a city’s efficiency. One reason I feel liberated here in Shanghai is that there are so many different ways to get from one place to another. My favorite mode of transport is my bicycle—I can cycle as far as 5 kilometers away, all on my own manpower—and not have to worry about parking my car or finding a petrol station. That is my sense of freedom and I’m sorry that so many Shanghai residents no longer find it attractive.

For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE