“Run!” shouted Mai in the middle of a high-traffic boulevard in Saigon, Vietnam. She and her brother bolted to the sidewalk, against all the advice local folks gave us on the art of crossing the street. Horns honked as scooters and mopeds zoomed by the runaways. Miraculously, they made it to the other side unharmed.
Meanwhile I stuck to the proven method — walking at a steady and predictable pace, letting the swarm of two-wheelers and the occasional taxi glide around the invisible force field surrounding my body.
Part of the joy I find in travelling comes for the thrill of experiencing different collective behaviors. And the tacit code of conduct that rules the interaction between pedestrians and drivers is one of my favorites. Although the official laws are practically the same all around the world – vehicles must yield to pedestrians, not harm them – reality takes very different shapes in various parts of the globe.
In San Francisco, when a person starts crossing the street – or is about to – cars stop to let them pass. If a driver fails to do so, the pedestrian is likely to blurt out an insult, flip a finger, or both.
Only a few months after moving to the City by the Bay, I accidentally scared a passerby at a busy intersection. I saw him just in time and stopped the car before he was in any real danger. The man kept cursing, and I made the mistake of opening the window to start a conversation. He spit on my face and walked away, still cursing out loud.
A few years later, now a true San Franciscan, I was crossing the street at a leisurely pace when a car drove towards me without slowing down, its driver seemingly unaware of my presence. I stepped back, far enough to be safe yet close enough for retaliation, and slammed the trunk with the palm of my hand so the jerk would think his vehicle was damaged.
The golden rule for driving in SF is: “You do NOT mess with pedestrians.”
At first, Italy puzzled me. Cars move fast, even in smaller streets, and do not stop for pedestrians waiting to cross. At a busy intersection you could probably spend fifteen minutes waiting for someone to let you pass. On a good day. But after observing the locals, I finally figured it out. If you start crossing, cars will stop. It’s a bit like playing chicken, except you are betting your life.
The strategy is to wait until the next oncoming cars are far enough to actually stop before hitting you. Then you walk confidently, keeping an eye on traffic so you can jump out of harm’s way in case of a distracted driver or faulty brakes.
It took me a while to get used to it, but once past the initial shock I found intense satisfaction in crossing busy avenues in the heart of Rome at rush hour. Especially when leaving a bunch of tourists behind, stuck on the sidewalk and scratching their heads. Good times!
Munich, in comparison to Saigon, Rome, and San Francisco, seems like the safest city on Earth. As everyone knows, Germans are polite, well behaved and respectful. And drivers always give way to pedestrians. Or so I thought.
After three days in the Bavarian capital, I felt comfortable with my surroundings and decided to take a shortcut: instead of following the approved pathway to beautiful Karlsplatz – a long detour around the four-lane boulevard – I walked straight towards my destination, outside of any pedestrian crossing area. The only cars in sight were far away. No big deal.
To my surprise, the concerto of BMW’s and Mercedes accelerated, closing the distance much faster than expected, as if trying to either hit me or give me a heart attack. The golden rule for walking in Munich is: “You do NOT jaywalk.”
I lost my cool. I ran.