Surviving Suzhou's Traffic
Suzhou presents a number of difficulties with traffic that are somewhat different from other cities in China; there are a number of reasons for this. Predominantly it is the presence of huge numbers of electric bikes that affect both pedestrians and drivers of any vehicle. For an ex-pat or casual visitor, Suzhou may be their first experience of navigating Chinese streets, so the information below includes China-wide road problems as well as those specific to Suzhou.
Arrival in Suzhou will usually have proceeded by a car journey along the Shanghai-Nanjing highway. Depending on the driver and road conditions this can be a pleasant trip but is often a rollercoaster of a ride as your vehicle slaloms across carriageways, cutting up whatever vehicle happens to be in the way. The craziness normally ends once you pass through the toll gate at the entrance to Suzhou, but late at night the driver may blatantly run the lights into the centre of town.
This ride is not typical of driving in the city, which is far slower paced, but it does give you an inkling of drivers respect for road rules and their concern for other road users; fundamentally this ranges from minimal to zero. There are road traffic police but they seem far more interested in project policing, for example they may spend a week stopping all the bikes to check credentials, those with out of state plates or riders without helmets; they rarely take notice of cars, speeding or dangerous driving.
Most residents and ex-pats are likely to get about on foot, by bus and taxi or on an electric bike. A fewer luckier souls will have a car and driver provided for them. Currently, there is a rush by ex-pats to get driving licences, before the rules that allow a Chinese speaker to take the written test for you are changed, and a few now drive themselves. A Singaporean driver in Suzhou summed up what driving here is like, “It’s stressful. You never relax as you’re constantly expecting the unexpected. It’s even worse with the children in the car. I hate driving in Suzhou.”
This piece largely confines itself to the times that you’re on foot, as to describe the huge list of problems that exist for drivers and bike riders would take a book. However, perhaps the most common accident is when a bicycle or electric bike is hit by a vehicle turning across a bike lane. Several friends have been seriously injured in exactly this situation. If you want to drive a bike, wear a helmet and pay attention to what’s going on over your left shoulder at every junction.