The scene is a busy street in Mumbai, India. The car traffic is constant. Crosswalk stripes are painted on the pavement, and packs of pedestrians cross. But the cars never stop. The pedestrians, in undulating lines, also do not stop as they cross in front of the cars. Somehow, it just works. There’s a video of the action on Youtube, and it’s an amazing scene for someone accustomed to the way things are done on Victoria’s roads.
In Victoria, motorists typically stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Where there are no traffic lights, motorists are apt to stop if they see you on the curb waiting. Everyone tends to obey traffic lights.
That’s not necessarily the norm in other places.
A well-travelled relative found a very different approach during a tour that included Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Hong Kong.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, she spotted no crosswalks or traffic lights. “If you wait for a gap, you'll never get across. Instead, start walking onto the street when there is an opening (i.e. giving the vehicle enough time to react). Remain calm and walk confidently in a straight direction and at a steady pace with no sudden stops or movements — vehicles will go around you.” It helps that many of the vehicles are scooters and motorcycles, whose drivers can easily adjust their direction.
She found a similar situation in Bangkok, Thailand, though the traffic was heavier and more aggressive. Her advice: walk with the locals. But even they can be daunted. In one stretch of road she encountered, the cars and trucks just kept coming at an uncomfortably high speed and it was clear that they would not stop. Everyone, including the locals, waited for a gap, which took about 10 or 15 minutes to materialize.
Hong Kong, despite its huge crowds, was a comparative relief. There are crosswalks and both the motorists and pedestrians often obey the traffic lights.
A colleague who lived in India for six months remembers her anxiety about crossing a busy six-lane street near where she was staying. She woke up every day feeling anxious about crossing the street so that she could buy supplies.
"The scariest thing in all my travels was crossing that street. I was scared about crossing everyday; I never got used to it." Whenever possible, she would sidle up to a person who looked more confident, and cross with him or her.
Another colleague recalled how his daughters were freaked out by the frantic traffic of Delhi and had to coax them out of their hotel. He grew up in India, so he wasn’t fazed. His advice, given with a smile: “Pretend they (the cars) are not there and just walk or you'll never get across." But waiting for a slight gap is wise, he said.
A visitor to Frankfurt, Germany reported a different scene. Everyone crossed at crosswalks, obeying the lights. Cars stopped for pedestrians. Same thing in Tokyo. And sort of in Montreal, though crowds will keep crossing after the light turns red, a relative who lived there said. "They don't notice the light, they just keeping." In parts of Rome, it's shades of Dehli; the traffic is heavy, constant and does not stop for pedestrians.
I'm not sure which system is safer. In the no stopping for pedestrians culture, for all its frightening and frustrating aspects, people are likely paying more attention, trying not to get hit or trying not to hit. In a place like Victoria, where pedestrians assume cars will stop for them, we're apt to go merrily on our way without paying attention, stepping off curbs into traffic without noticing what's coming at us.
Here are more street-crossing videos. Warning: frightening for some people (like me). You might hear obscenities in the soundtracks.
The person crossing the street here in Ho Chi Minh City is watching the traffic closely.
Plenty of hesitating here before crossing.
How you cross the street in Cairo, a CNN report.
There's a well-marked crosswalk here in Jiujiang, China, but the cars and scooters don't stop for pedestrians.
Tourists' false starts and brave chatter along a busy street in Hyderabad, India.
Watch vehicles coming at a pedestrian in Tehran, Iran.
How it's done in Rome. A few cars, probably driven by tourists, actually slow down or stop for pedestrians.
- - -