I'll be on my own this year while visiting a friend who is living in Shanghai and would like to get a handle on how good, bad or otherwise the public transportation system is there. Is it reliable? Safe for a woman taking it alone? Is it safe at night? Does it cover a fairly large area? Is it easy to figure out if you don't speak the language? Thanks so much in advance for your help!
Metro is reliable, safe and quite modern.
I didn't take it too late into night but overall Shanghai is one of the safest city I have travelled to in the world.
There are ticket vending machines in all the stations I have been to (they are very obvious). The ticketing machines feature an English mode. I don't speak a word of Mandarin and was able to get a ticket quite easily from those machines: all you need is the metro line number (or color) and then the name of your final stop. It's easy to get lost in the Chinese pictogram, I recommend you have those two information in Pinyin (latin transliteration) and Chinese Pictogram before you leave.
In the train itself, you will see an electronic board with blinking lights indicating which stop you are currently at and which one is the next one. There is also a PA in Mandarin, then English for every stops.
The metro stops are further apart that in most American or European cities I have been to. If you miss your stop, you will have a bit more walking in order to backtrack.
Metro maps come in handy for line transfer: they are available as mobile apps (https://itunes.apple.com/en/app/explore-shanghai-metro-map/id340706615?mt=8), as well as picture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shanghai_Metro_map_en.svg).
Hope this helps!
Shanghai is really safe, especially if you are going to be at downtown area or the Bund, or any tourist areas. We recently lived in Shanghai for a year and half. I used to walk home alone at night after parties in the downtown area, my husband and I also took late night walks in the French Concession areas and get snacks and foot massages at mid night, I miss that! As for public transportation, subway is really nice and convenient. I would not recommend buses because usually the bus drivers do not speak English and you would not be able to ask where to get off, and they are more crowded. Taxies are safe and convenient, I always took taxis with the company logo and license, I never took unlicensed taxis where the drivers offered their service directly to me, and their cars looked just like regular cars not taxies. Still if you are taking taxi late at night, make sure you tell your friends where you are going and check up with you later. Also you can always ask for a receipt at the end of your ride, it is called "Fa Piao", it gives you the time you got on the taxi, and the time you got off, the taxi number and the company contact phone number, just in case you left something in the taxi or you need to complain (Chinese only). The tricky part about taxi is that you will not able to find a taxi in rainy days, suddenly everybody who usually takes buses will now hail a taxi, and the competition would be very fierce. :-) So don't go during rainy season, oh, also summer is scorching hot, don't go in summer if you can avoid it. My favorite time is May or October. Enjoy Shanghai, they have awesome food: french, italian, indian, nepali, chinese, japanese, korean, etc, with various price points from very high end to very cheap. Only think lacking is that they don't have good mexican food, but that is hardly an issue when you have so many choices.
The public transportation in Shanghai is ALL of the above answered in YES.
It's everything you know and expect from transportation system in the western world. Forget the buses, as subway will take you any place you want. It's modern, clean, fast, safe and all directions are in English. Get yourself a card, top it up in self-serviced machines and you're good to go any place you wish in Shanghai, on either side of the bund. We used it happily for couple of days, it runs until just after midnight, so late night going back home involves taxi, but they are rather cheap.
Just go, enjoy and have fun.
There are two main ways to get around in Shanghai - taxi or subway.
Taxis are relatively cheap in Shanghai. If you come equipped with a map or the address (cross-streets are helpful) of your destination, they require the least amount of hassle. I haven't had a case where the taxi driver takes the long way on purpose. Also, since all the taxis are licensed and well organized, it's relatively safe. Make sure you get a receipt when you get off so you can call the service number on the back in case you left something in the car.
Subway is cheaper and fairly convenient as well. Shanghai's subway is as reliable as the ones in New York or Tokyo. The only downside is that it can get crowded and sometimes you have to put up with people begging for change on the trains. (Do not give change, as these are widely known scammers). The subway does not run 24/7 so it's easier to taxi if you're out late. There are enough subway lines and stops to get to the popular areas in Shanghai. It's not uncommon to ride the subway to cover majority of the distance and then use a taxi to get to your final destination.
There are private drivers that will congregate outside certain popular areas such as train stations or tourist spots. These are just individuals who are looking to make some money on the side. I have never taken them so I can't vouch for the safety. If you decide to take them, make sure to negotiate the rate upfront, ask them how long it will take and trust your gut. (Sometimes, they might be the only choices during rush hour or rainy days)
As for the language barrier, Shanghai is international enough that most subway trains will broadcast the stops in both Chinese and English. They also have signs in English as well. Almost all young people in Shanghai should be proficient enough in English to help you out if you are lost.