I read with interest this week an article about a campaign taking place in Belo Horizonte aimed at getting drivers to respect pedestrians. (Thecityfix.com)
I think it’s great that they are trying to encourage respect for pedestrians, especially when the city is expecting an influx of tourists over the next few years, but hands up if you think a few leaflets will make the slightest bit of difference…
If you come from somewhere like the UK, let’s say somewhere slightly more ‘civilised’, you can’t help but notice when visiting Belo Horizonte how different it is to cross the roads here. In Belo Horizonte many roads are three or four lanes wide in each direction, and the driving is crazy, wacky races material. Traffic is also a major problem in this city, which makes the already impatient drivers even more so.
There are plenty of pedestrian crossings but none of them seem to work quite as they should. Nine times out of ten, simple zebra crossings are completely defunct. You may as well be standing at any other unmarked part of the road. Most drivers in Belo assume right of way over pedestrians, so it’s best to wait until the road is clear, even at a crossing. Similarly, if you happen to be at traffic lights and the green man is showing, you still need to check that the traffic in all lanes has seen you and stopped. Having nearly been mowed down myself by a car in the third lane zooming on by, I’d say never trust the green man!
I have visited many other places in my travels where the pedestrian crossings are mere road decorations (or perhaps targets for the more sadistic driver!); Rome being the most memorable. I remember standing for ages at the side of the road with my sister, waiting for the cars to stop. Eventually we realised that they never would, and we would actually have to walk out in front of them and hope for the best. We were especially nervous having read in the guide-book that the only sure-fire way to know that the cars will stop is to walk alongside a nun!
But alas, Belo Horizonte doesn’t have such a plentiful supply of nuns.
What makes it exceptionally difficult to cross the roads here is that cars frequently keep driving after the lights have turned red, and the next queue of cars will start driving before their light turns green (they seem to be lacking a ‘get ready’ amber light! Instead they have two red lights – does anyone know what that’s for? Possibly to emphasise the STOP message. If so, it doesn’t work). You might be only half way across a four-lane road, but if the green man disappears, the cars immediately start driving off. This I will put down to a very dangerous oversight in the way that the lights work, in addition to some incredibly impatient drivers who have simply learnt to drive this way.
I can empathise a bit with the drivers here, because sometimes it can feel like you have to stop at traffic lights every twenty metres, and the never-ending one-way system means you have to go right around the houses just to go next-door. However, there really is no excuse for dangerous driving, which is how I see it. The question is: how can you change the behaviour of a whole city of motorists?
Sometimes, pedestrians get impatient too. Traffic light crossings here take forever. My in-laws live almost within throwing distance from our apartment, yet it can take 15mins just to cross the three roads to get there. The temptation to make a dash for it can be too great to resist, and at some junctions, running is simply the only option. I’ve seen many a kamikaze pedestrian who has obviously decided that they don’t have a spare half an hour to wait to cross all of the roads safely. Confident in the knowledge that they’re the next Usain Bolt, they make a break for it, only to crash back to reality amidst a chorus of car horns and hand signals. The vultures circle in the sky overhead, ever hopeful. 😉
For me, the person who summed all of this up best has to be Joe Leahy from the Financial Times when he said “Pedestrian crossings are for population control. Only gringos risk their lives by insisting on their right of way.” It’s very true. (Read the full Financial Times article here: Expat lives: Worth the paperwork)