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Friday, January 12, 2007

Traffic #4: The grand game of Frogger – being a pedestrian

As those who’ve been reading my descriptions of traffic can probably imagine, crossing the street in Chennai can be a bit harrowing. To cross takes nerves and a good sense of timing. You have to know when to wait and when to go, have a firm, almost laidback confidence and faith that the drivers don’t actually want to hit you (they may actually, but believing that won’t help you), but understand that they expect you to move so will not slow simply because you are in front of them.

Since most streets don’t have traffic lights and traffic is heavy, it never stops. To cross you are required to simply stride confidently into the fray, Frogger-style, timing the holes. Those who are comfortable jaywalking shop to shop across Younge Street anywhere between Lawrence and Bloor probably has some idea and basis for the technique, although traffic here of course does not move in straight lines or in any semblance of order. If you’ve spent your life out West or even worse, in Atlantic Canada, well, my only advice is bring provisions and a book ‘cause you’re gonna be there a while.

The childhood lesson of look both ways before you cross the street becomes especially important here. Even crossing a relatively quiet street involves looking both ways not only before starting across but several times as you cross. I remember my kindergarten teacher chiding us to look saying, “you never know if a car might be coming the wrong way”. True and better safe than sorry, but I can think of very, very few times I’ve ever seen this in North America and most of them were in Montreal. Oh no though, not here. Here proper road use is the gross exception, notable when seen. Although there might have been no vehicles a moment ago, you can’t predict when a bike, auto or truck might pop out of some hidden lane and be now barrelling towards you on the wrong side of the street. And if you’re crossing at a 4-way intersection, you have to be especially careful as you have to consider vehicles that might come up behind you. Vehicles do not stop or slow when they plan to make a corner – they just turn in and in my understanding it doesn’t cross their minds to consider if there are currently pedestrians crossing ahead of them. Since you are smaller, you have to give way. If you’re lucky, they’ll at least honk. You might think I’m spicing this up for the sake of the tale, but I’m totally serious. I see these kinds of random and sketchy moves all the time. Heck, I’m often a hapless passenger in a vehicle taking the track that defies every invented traffic rule or better judgement. Really, what it comes down to is that since drivers of all vehicles take whatever path is most convenient and opportune, you really do have to anticipate anything. If a motorcycle appeared out of the door of a building, bounced down the stairs, weaved around the gate, struck out diagonally across the 4-way intersection (barely missing the through-traffic) and disappeared through the backyard of some neighbouring family, Ferris Beuller style, I wouldn’t blink. If an elephant did the same, I may curse for lack of camera, but wouldn’t be much more surprised.

I get a chance to practice this every day going to and from lunch with my colleague. Just walking to lunch involves walking single file down the narrow one-way with autos, trucks and buses buzzing by our shoulders, dodging motorcycles pulling into the gas station or driveways and (on our return walk back to work) keeping a close eye out while crossing intersections for autos coming from behind us making left turns without slowing. It certainly elevates walking to a fully participatory experience.

You gotta love a place where crossing the street or going to lunch keeps you on your toes.

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