Shanghai’s outmoded buses desperately need a tech upgrade

By Juli Min Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/19 18:28:40

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

The Shanghai subway system is gloriously fast, clean and technologically advanced. As a New Yorker who spent many years backing away from NYC's perilously open subway tracks, enduring its confusing reroutings announced on paper taped on platforms, and riding grimy carriages without air conditioning, the Shanghai metro feels like heaven.

I'd say Shanghai's subway even edges out Seoul where I was born and lived for several years. However, when it comes to buses, Seoul's system wins hands down.

Shanghai's buses feel as outdated as New York's, and with no bilingual maps and not even an app, foreigners in Shanghai are being metaphorically kicked off the bus.

It's high time for the government to provide a bilingual website or app that can track Shanghai's buses so as to help outsiders unfamiliar with the city navigate this quite confusing public transportation network. It would also be helpful if its maps were written out in pinyin if not also in English.

For locals who speak and read Chinese, Shanghai buses are in fact an extremely convenient and affordable way to get anywhere in the city. After all, there are more than 1,000 bus lines crisscrossing throughout Shanghai. But I have never met a foreigner here who feels comfortable using the bus system.

Of course, if all foreigners could just learn Putonghua while living in China, that might solve the problem and take the burden off of the government. I jest, though it is quite vital for any long-term expat here to learn at least a semblance of the local language.

But even for me, after a year of actively learning the language and culture (I have a private teacher and am at HSK Level 4), Shanghai's bus system is incredibly challenging to navigate.

Access and affordability are the universal mainstays of all public transportation systems across the world. Thus, if Shanghai intends to become a truly international city and hopes to encourage more foreign companies and talent to move here, it absolutely must revamp its bus system.

The city's public transportation bureau itself doesn't have to create and maintain an all-new bilingual website. Most Chinese just use Baidu Maps to track bus locations in real time.

But Baidu, oh Baidu, if you really want to top Google's market share in Asia, you desperately need an English version for your otherwise superior maps app.

In Seoul, not only is there a publicly funded and managed bilingual website to display all bus routes and their present real-time locations, but most Korean bus stands are also fully bilingual and automated with real-time data.

Yes, bus stops in Shanghai now have digital displays, but not all stops are consistent. And without being able to understand maps written in Chinese, foreigners are pretty much going in blind.

Aside from Seoul's bus system accessibility, the most brilliant thing about Korean buses is that they are actually making a profit from on-bus advertising. As each bus pulls up to a stop, GPS-triggered audio commercials are played for passengers to inform them about local businesses in the area.

In Seoul's infamous Gangnam district, for example, buses stop along streets populated with plastic surgery clinics; ads begin to describe different procedures available along with special sales for "combination surgeries."

It's slightly morbid when you really think about it, but there's no denying the massive revenue being generated from these ads, which helps keep bus fares low.

Shanghai could easily install a similar system in its buses, which in turn would fund technology upgrades while boosting the local economy, especially in commercial routes such as Nanjing Road and Huaihai Road Middle.

Most foreigners I know in Shanghai rarely ride bus, as they see it as a logistical hassle compared to the ease of the subway or just hailing a private driver on Didi.

But with buses going almost everywhere and anywhere across the city's vast 6,340 square kilometers, if only they'd upgrade their maps and apps, Shanghai's public transport could quickly become world-class.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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