Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Taxis and Traffic

New York, USA

My experience, travelling with locals, is that it is compulsory to argue with the cab driver from the moment you open the door. Before you get in. The assumption is that the driver is definitely trying to rip off his or her passengers. Passengers therefore need to be aggressive just to get a fair. Deal. What-ever route they take, regardless of actual traffic conditions, must clearly be the longest, out of the way roads possible just to build up their fare. They are also intentionally going slow. The traffic could literally be at a standstill, 5 lanes deep, but the passenger seems to be in their rights to yell at the driver for not finding a way to move through traffic.

Traffic does come to a standstill. As a passenger in a private vehicle coming off the New Jersey turnpike into New York the traffic stopped dead before creeping forward only centimetres at a time. You could get out and walk faster. I did. With my camera walking ahead to take photos of the traffic getting back into the car 300m and 30minutes later. When they caught up to me.

America does this weird thing of driving on the other side of the road, which at first is unnerving. Round a-bouts are insane. Sitting in the passenger seat entering a roundabout in the wrong direction the brain is certain this manoeuvrer will lead to immediate death. The brain, however, can not determine from which direction the vehicle will come that is sure to end your life. The resulting feeling is that you will be hit by cars – at  speed – from every direction.

Windhoek, Namibia

When I was visiting the city of Windhoek was preparing to introduce its first roundabout. Like an Aussie in New York, the entire population believed these circular traffic island were engineering death devices. The paper published articles to educate the driving public. Basic rules.
  1. Enter to the left (because they drive on the correct side of the road America!)
  2. Drive in a clockwise direction
  3. Give way to vehicles on the right, already on the roundabout

Easy, common sense rules. Then there were added instructions for a population who had never seen let alone used a roundabout before.

  1. Do not stop on the roundabout.
  2. Do not change directions on the roundabout.
  3. Do not drive straight over the top of the roundabout.

Taxis in Namibia, during my visit, did exist but were not marked. So it really felt like the population were quite friendly and drivers just stopped and gave people lifts. It looked like some sort of structure hitchhiker program, but it worked.

Lima, Peru

In Peru the taxis are 12-seater mini vans. One of those seats contains the driver. The front passenger seat has another employee whose job appears to be to hang out of the window yelling at people on the side of the road in the hope this will encourage them to get in the taxi. Unlike other cities, Peruvian taxis do not limit themselves to a single fare per trip. The one time I caught a taxi the remaining 10 seats were taken up by 17 adults three children, a breast feeding infant, two dogs and a chicken. The fare per ride appeared to be the same regardless of the length of the journey. It was the smallest note you were carrying. Do not give them coins.

Traffic in Lima is chaotic. And loud. Not just the unregulated mufflers and the taxis yelling at potential customers. Horns. Drivers literally drive with one hand on the wheel and the other hand on the horn. They beep at everything. When they pass a car, in case the other vehicle was thinking of changing lanes. When being passed, in case the faster vehicle was thinking of changing lanes too soon after passing. If passing people on the sidewalk in case they were thinking of suddenly jumping out into the traffic. Vehicles that are to fast, slow, big, small, old, new, red… I am not convinced there actually had to be a reason. They just beeped there horn, and there was a lot of traffic. Over the top of this the traffic police blew whistles, for reasons as obvious as to why drivers beep their horns.

Kathmandu, Nepal

There are two sets of traffic lights in Kathmandu, and neither of them work. There is only one definite road rule, give ways to cows. Otherwise it is just keep left…ish. It is accepted to go right, if there is a gap where your vehicle will fit, or almost fit. A gap where your vehicle will fit once everyone else jiggles and shuffles around a bit. What appears to be single lane, one way road will always have at least two lanes of traffic in each direction. I use the word “lane” loosely, as it implies that the vehicles are all travelling in orderly lines one behind the other. In reality the traffic is more like some sort of intricate indigenous weaving pattern. The trick is to never come to a complete stop.

Crossing the road as a pedestrian is an adrenalin rush. Like George Costanza in “The Frogger” episode of Seinfeld.

For a extra level of complexity the man-hole covers (I know this sounds sexist but person-hole just sounds silly) sit approximately 20cm higher than the road. A little obastacle just to add some bonus fun to the driving experience.

Kathmandu does have regular taxis, but why use these when there are bicycle rickshaws? What could be more fun than weaving through traffic, dodging cows and manholes than sitting in a cage on the back of a bicycle? Being a pedestrian, that’s what. Trying to survive this vehicular onslaught on streets without footpaths/sidewalks. Just like vehicles the general rule is stick to the left, on the edge of the road. But sometimes the easiest and safest area to be was walking down the middle of the road.

Zurich, Switzerland.

As expected the traffic is very orderly in Switzerland. Everything moves, well, like Swiss clockwork.

Taxis can be opportunistic. I needed a taxi from my hotel to the main railway station. It should have been two roads. Approximately 700m on the road my hotel was situated and then 1.4km on the road parallel to Bahnhofstrasse. As the meerkat would say, “simples”. The 2 road, 10 minute journey took 40 minutes and included all of the sights of downtown Zurich.

I needed a New Yorker with me to yell at the driver from journey’s beginning to end, just to keep him honest.

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