Crossing Streets

Traffic is a cultural experience

Local traffic is as characteristic of a place as what people wear or local food favorites. Crossing streets is a cultural experience. It is wise to think of it like jump roping: pause and watch to get the rhythm before you jump in.

My first experience of this is when I arrived in Boston for college and I went to cross the street in Kenmore Square. The light turned red and a walk light came on…the cars did not stop. They kept going through half of what should have been my time to cross. Now-a-days Seattle is less law abiding than it was back then, so it is hard for people today to imagine my shock.

In Amsterdam they have a very organized, and complex system where people, bicycles, cars and, in some places, trolleys all have their allotted time to cross. Managed by traffic lights.

In Nairobi “the jam” makes it so that people weave in and out amongst the cars which are all but parked.

In England and Japan people seemed to be more like old Seattle: fairly docilely obedient to the signals, and generally polite.

Waiting for a walk light in Takayama, Japan.

In China there is some variation from place to place. This makes sense in such a large country, however sometimes there is variation within one city, especially between the older and newer parts. I have been to China several times since my son lives there. It took me a while to get the hang of crossing the streets, many of which are very wide. It felt pretty random, and one peculiarity compared with home is that right turners do not have to stop for pedestrians. So when the light turns and you are given the walk sign it is open season on you for the people turning right. When I finally got a picture of how the intersections worked from above it made a lot more sense.

When you are standing on the street corner this doesn’t look orderly, but from above it does.

Here is the trick:

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, like jumping in during a game of jump rope, you want to stop and watch to get the rhythm of how the intersection works. Some are fairly simple, but some are Double Dutch. Then find a local person ready to cross and stay beside them. If there is a group then get yourself into the midst of it and keep pace.

Traveling in China with my dad, who tends to wander off, to look at random stuff like construction cranes and tangles of electrical wires, I was sure he was a goner. He was dazed by the busy streets and how scooters and bicycles never seemed to stop, until I told him the trick of crossing with locals. He survived, both crossing the streets and not falling into the Yangtze.

5 thoughts on “Crossing Streets”

  1. Good advice indeed. I remember in Italy, when no one was willing to give way to pedestrians, we just stepped out and fixed the nearest driver with an “I dare you to run me over!” look, which obviously worked because we lived to tell the tale. South Africa is another story entirely. Even on the sidewalks one isn’t safe from marauding taxis. 😳

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In China also they sometimes drive on sidewalks, and the wrong way, it can be hair raising.
      I had a Dutch roommate in college named Isamar who taught me that look. I was never as good at it as she was.

      Liked by 1 person

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