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Wheelchair vs Truck: A Battle for Space on Shanghai’s Streets

Life is tough for those who travel by wheelchair in Shanghai, having to fight for their share of the road along with cars, trucks, motorbikes, and bicycles. I was appalled by this when I first witnessed it, but like everything I initially found shocking or strange, I’ve become mutely accepting. That’s just how it is in China, people say.

Then a few weeks ago I saw a near collision between a frail elderly man travelling by wheelchair in the bicycle lane, pushed along by his grand-daughter, and one of those ubiquitous blue Chinese trucks. It snapped me back into a world where those in wheelchairs can safely and easily use the footpath to get around and I thought – why is it like this?

Why indeed. Despite the presence of some advocacy groups, and attempts to make the city more disability-friendly before Shanghai Expo last year, equal access for those with disabilities is a long way off. A few months ago it was reported by the Shanghai government that Shanghai has only five wheelchair friendly taxis for an estimated 60,000 wheelchair users. It’s no surprise then, that if you’re in a wheelchair and need to get from A to B, you’ll have to go on your own two wheels, alongside all the regular traffic.

But what’s wrong with the sidewalks I hear you say? Why don’t they just push the wheelchair along the sidewalk out of harm’s way? Sidewalks in China are appalling. Absolutely appalling. They’re uneven and full of holes, interrupted by giant trees, and very crowded. More than that, sidewalks are just one more public space free for everyone to use as they see fit. Apartment too small when visitors arrive? No problem, bring your table and chairs outside and eat dinner on the footpath. Want to set up a business but can’t afford the rent? Just use the sidewalk, even if that business involves dangerous equipment or deep-frying. Traffic congestion? Don’t bother with the road for pete’s sake, jump the kerb and use the sidewalk as an extra lane. Honk your horn a lot. Nudge pedestrians with your front wheel if necessary.

A typical Shanghai sidewalk – some rubble, a couple of chairs, live seafood in polystyrene boxes, and a makeshift stall.

So it’s not that easy. I admire the bravery and patience of those in wheelchairs here, and I only hope the situation eventually improves. In my mind I can imagine all 60,00 wheelchair users forming a road convoy and successfully bringing Shanghai’s traffic to its knees. Power to the wheelies!