There’s a lot you can tell about a city by observing its traffic patterns and the habits of pedestrians on the street. In New York, for instance, the people are moving quickly – the vehicles as well. The walkers and drivers have someplace to be, and they’re not interested in being waylaid for anything whatever. They follow the rules, mostly. Expectations include that vehicles do not pull into intersections they might not clear when the signal changes for traffic in the other direction to pass by, pedestrians do not step directly in front of vehicles, and that bicyclists do whatever they want and whatever keeps them alive. But there’s a smooth pattern to the busy traffic and pedestrian patterns of movement. The landscape of expectations is simple enough for a first-time visitor to figure out immediately, even though it may feel quite intimidating to the newcomer.
Another city with standard expectations – even more carefully observed and enforced, usually by the drivers and pedestrians themselves – is in Berlin. You may have noticed already my predilection toward all things Berlin, but this is one of the reasons for those proclivities of mine. Pedestrians do not cross against traffic lights, even when there are no cars in the area and even in the middle of the night. Cars stop for walkers when they’re supposed to stop for them. You’re more likely to upset someone by not following these rules than by any other traffic faux pas. On all major and secondary arteries, and on many pathways through parks, there are separate walking and biking lanes, and woe be unto him who walks in the bicycling lane. This city, too, is built around expectations that are easy for a newcomer to understand and to follow. This brings me to Rome. While not (by a long shot, I’ll reckon) the most nerve wracking area for an outsider to visit, things are trying enough to make this rule-abider confused and nervous. When there are lines on the roads, they are frequently ignored. Vehicles drift to and fro across and between other lanes of traffic as the need arises. Motorbikes thread between these constantly shifting lanes of traffic to get ahead. As a pedestrian, I have been instructed to simply step in front of careening vehicles and to look their drivers in the eye – as if daring them to murder me with their death machines and leave my flailing and tossed body to the winds. Bicycles are rare in the city center as compared even to non-European cities. There are traffic laws, and then there are expectations and mores. The expectations and mores do not always align with the traffic laws, which seem to be wholly disregarded most of the time. It seems to work, however. In a week’s time spent in Rome, I haven’t yet seen a traffic accident. I’ve seen plenty of these in New York in about the same amount of time at city-center.
In my home city of Salt Lake, in Utah, USA, the people are prepared to meet their god. They turn right on red (not legal without a proper and full stop in the U.S.) at speed into busy traffic. They accelerate at yellow (soon to be red) lights. They turn and switch lanes without signaling. They travel below the speed of traffic in the passing lane – only to become frustrated when people move around them and to accelerate past those they had formerly been slowing down. All of this tells me that Utahns are prepared to die. Well, most of them. Not this Utahn. In other states, they teach new drivers to drive defensively and with a modicum of caution. In Utah, the adage seems to be: “Don’t signal, or they won’t let you in. Be aggressive. B-E aggressive.”
I’ve developed a working hypothesis that the patterns and social expectations with regard to traffic and pedestrian movement tell us a great deal about the culture of a place and the people who are a part of it.
Remember that you can follow all of the summer’s posts on the main 2017 travel page!