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A lesson from travelling in China


By Seven Sharp Producer Sarah Stewart

Published: 6:49PM Wednesday June 12, 2013 Source: Seven Sharp

We are on the wrong side of the motorway, hurtling towards certain death, in a sup-ed up Subaru Impreza. We're passing two lanes of cars at a standstill, blocking any escape from oncoming traffic.

In the driver's seat, a teenager - hair burnt orange, a blond streak licking through it like a flame - grins and puts his foot down.

The car rumbles throatily through the gears as the speedo, lit up in purple neon, flickers higher.

"Sway Love - Made in New Zealand" reads a sticker on the dash. But these are not the mean streets of this boyracer's Hamilton hometown.

This is Shanghai at rush hour on a Wednesday - and a bracing introduction to travelling in China.

It's a chaotic place to drive. We breathe out as we swerve with precision into a gap no bigger than Brendon's car.

He's just 19, and one of very few Kiwis here on his OE - but he has more control than many here behind the wheel.

The rules we can establish are this: you can pull out suddenly at any time without looking backwards or indicating, and it's up to the driver behind you to take evasive action.

A red light doesn't mean stop - you can still take a corner and dodge the scuttling pedestrians. Lane markings are not so important.

And your horn is your friend, use it often.

"Film all the flash cars," Brendon instructs our cameraman. "Merc," he points out. "Merc..... Audi."

This is what really makes Shanghai driving different: it's the sole preserve of the rich. The reason? Your licence plate may cost you more than your car.

This city of 23 million has resorted to extreme measures to try to stop an onslaught of new cars - licence plate quotas.

Since 1994 if you want a car registration, you have to go to auction. Prices are eye-watering - in March bids hit 90,000 Yuan (NZ$18,500) - more than an average annual salary, car not included. (And you thought the Auckland housing market was bad.)

Brendon's not that loaded - his plate is from outside Shanghai and cost $1000, which means he's not allowed to drive on some roads at certain times.

North in Beijing, the need for quotas is obvious. On a bad day the pollution shrouds buildings and envelopes Beijingers in white mist.

Olivia, a young Aucklander on her OE here, shows us the smog reading on an iPhone app.

"Very unhealthy - protection recommended," the US government warns.

We see the occasional foreigner looking even more alien in a full scale gas mask, but most people just carry on as usual.

Here the licence plate system is less elitist, more Communist - it's a lottery. 5 million cars choke the capital's motorways - so the government restricts the number of new registrations to 240,000 licence plates a year.

It means Beijingers have only a one in 80 chance of hitting the jackpot when the lottery is drawn each month. We spoke to one young man who'd been waiting for three years, and given up hope of ever owning a car.

Lucky then that the public transport system is surprisingly good.

A bus costs just 20c. For just 40c, you can travel anywhere on the modern subway. It's subsidised by the government, and rapidly expanding - by 2015 residents won't have to walk more than 1km to get to their closest station.

Yes, you might find you're crushed into a few sweaty arm pits at rush hour, but it's no worse than London, and there's no doubting it's efficiency.

Plus there's cool stuff to look at: when the trains pass through tunnels, illuminated ads appear. We're mesmerised by a digital stick figure running alongside our window, sinking basketballs and jumping hurdles.

It works like a kid's flip book - using a series of still photographs hung in tunnels, which are illuminated with spotlights as the train goes by. But I digress.

The Beijing subway system is the carrot that New Zealanders just don't have to get out of their cars.

My bus to work from Aucklands North Shore costs $9 return. Car parking costs me $13. It's not enough of a saving to make me ditch the car, meaning most days I'm one of the drivers adding to Auckland's congestion - which from our experience is a lot worse than any traffic we hit in Shanghai or Beijing.

There weren't many times we were at a standstill in China - whereas a 30-minute queue to get onto the motorway is part of my daily routine.

Cheaper public transport seems to be the obvious option. But more carrots are needed in China too.

A recent report estimated that the number of cars there was on track to hit 400 million by 2030, up from 90 million now. The effect is unthinkable.

The Seven Sharp team's favourite way to travel wasn't quite the clean, green mode of transport we'd like to promote - but whizzing through the streets of old Shanghai in a sidecar was a something special

Thanks to Shanghai Insiders and Air New Zealand.