While expansive stretches of asphalt carry automobiles from one side of Shanghai to the other, a lot of life still happens relatively out of sight, down narrow back streets that are better-suited for the narrow dimensions of a two-wheeled vehicle. My front door was accessible only through easing one’s chosen two-wheeled conveyance through a narrow opening in a street-facing metal gate, the key to which was managed by a community group of octogenarians steadfastly committed to completely opening the gate only when they decided it was really worth it (whether to open it for my IKEA delivery was a topic of debate).
Yet, just a leisurely two-minute pedal from that same metal gate facing on to 建国西路 (or Western “Build the Nation Street”), a six-lane highway beeps and boils with buses, construction equipment, and private cars and taxis, and bicycle lanes along each side overflow with electric scooters and bicycles during rush hours.
Alleyways like the one my apartment was located on used to predominate back during the days of the 里弄 or 石库门 “lane houses” that made up much of the city before Shanghai’s streets were rebuilt to suit the will of the automobile. Nowadays, Shanghai’s narrowness persists, but is more often seen in the vestibules of courtyards in apartment buildings and massive mixed-use mall/apartment complexes that house the city’s 27 million people. What I’m interested in looking closer at here is the creative mods sparked by the city’s “narrow last mile,” in the form of the city’s still-considerable number of maze-like alleys and access tunnels that separate the World of Cars from the World of Feet.
From my time spent in both places, my completely subjective guess is that while Tokyo outpaces Shanghai in its sheer mileage of narrow, residential alleyways, Shanghai outnumbers Tokyo in the number of e-scooters. In Tokyo, as Dan Hill wrote in his excellent piece on Tokyo’s model mobility, street parking has been illegal since 1963. This is in sharp contrast to Shanghai, where cars are embraced and aspired to as a way of life, marker of success, and a means of supporting domestic consumption and stimulating the economy. On account of the influences of “BAT” (that’s Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, China’s take on FAANG), I’d guess that the volume of food deliveries and packages being moved through Shanghai’s streets at a given moment far exceeds the volume being moved through Tokyo’s streets.
Dan’s piece did a beautiful job showing the many different forms of human-scale transport that have sprung up to move things at a more human-scaled pace and size, through neighborhoods both small (Kamata, Kagurazaka, and Koenji) and large, creating a stark visual answer to the massive social and environmental costs of “half-empty trucks driving down too-small, clogged streets designed for horses.” As many American cities are struggling with, for all of the hype around the scaling of internet-enabled delivery services and the incredible convenience they provide, the externalities of “moving fast and breaking things” have proven overwhelming for places designed to accommodate horses, and even those that were designed for (a moderate amount of) cars and four-wheeled vehicles.
Now, as a city continually in the process of remaking itself, Shanghai is shifting from car- and human-scale to B.A.T-scale, as bike lanes swell with citizens’ app-mediated delivery demands. Step out on to almost any street in the city and it won’t be long before you spot a heavily loaded two-wheeled electric scooter. Many are equipped with improvised shelves and pannier-like appendages, loaded to optimize for cargo carriage capacity, and obscuring how a driver could even fit into the saddle (let alone steer and see which direction they’re headed in).
As Dan is wise to caveat, “Something as big and varied as Tokyo cannot be ‘all’ anything… there are parts of Tokyo that are quite the opposite of what I describe.” The same is true for Shanghai – in fact, it is these contrasting scales that drives all of the modifications of e-bikes, inspired by the need to keep pace with other e-bike-speed traffic on the connective tissue of Shanghai’s highways while also fitting through the narrow apertures of the city’s corridors and alleyways. The constraint of needing to move food and cargo through a combination of high-traffic, high-speed ring roads and narrow back streets has led to a number of e-scooters that have been customized specifically for food-delivery, and kitted out with insulated coolers. Like so many strains of corporate-branded, vinyl fungi sprouting out of every plausible surface, their hues range from Eleme blue (started by Baidu, now backed by Alibaba), to Meituan yellow (backed by Tencent), to a cornucopia of other eye-popping hues of delivery brands struggling to scale.
With Shanghai’s scale and speed combined, inefficiencies are bound to run rampant. The other end of the service interaction that begins with ordering lunch on a sleekly-designed app is a crowd of delivery drivers thronging our Shanghai studio’s lobby, calling occupants to the door using cellphone numbers from a dazzling variety of far-flung provinces. The role of food delivery scooter pilot is a popular initial economic foothold for workers arriving in Shanghai from rural areas in search of new economic opportunity. Frustratingly, drivers often arrive bearing food from restaurants nearly adjacent to one another, and (particularly egregiously) sometimes even from the same restaurant, from the same platform, with orders placed just minutes apart. If only the software powering these services were as flexible and open to modification as the e-scooters that enable them.
There’s endless stories to be unraveled in trying to understand how the open platform nature of these machines have been hacked and honed by their owners to match their precise needs and use behaviors, and the innumerable ways that drivers have wrenched on their vehicles to make it easier to perform the tasks that gets packages into waiting arms and puts food on their (and others’) tables.