The Cultural Differences in Crossing the Road

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An interesting blog post about the culture of crossing roads by agents of urbanism

As virtual bridges crossing the overwhelming number of black rivers, crosswalks may someday be an anthropological resource. Within the accompanying urban signage exists a multitude of behavioral indicators.

This morning, witnessing suicidal pedestrians, I was reminded of the first time I was struck by the cultural undertones of crosswalks while committing an apparent urban faux pas in Munich.

Street-crossing would appear to be a universal system to provide safety beyond language barriers. It is a system built on common knowledge – look both ways before you cross – and universal symbols. Thus, regardless of your tongue, you should be able to achieve a high level of mobility within this system.

Perhaps it’s not so simple.

We all grow up learning and seeing these rules in action, but we do not learn the same cultural associations to this system. Some of us grow up in a car culture – as urban sprawl reigns supreme – where cultural associations favor cars, others in a neighborhood culture that favors pedestrians.

As a child of suburbia, I first became familiar with the associations of a car culture, and this is pretty much how I think pedestrians were treated ….

This video brings up three behavioral decisions.

* Do you push the button, or wait (most of the crosswalk buttons are dummies in New York.)
* In that respect, do you push the button more times to make it change faster (same goes for elevators)
* If you don’t see any cars, do you cross despite the signal

If it isn’t obvious, the last of these, is the one I am interested in. As a New York resident, I see implications of the pedestrian/car battle on a daily basis.

I first noticed a stark difference in the cultural significance of the digital boxes at crosswalks when I was in Europe. I was living in Paris, and quickly learned that you ignore the safety signs. The decision to cross or not is solely based on oncoming traffic. The city’s density diminishes the reliability on traffic lights for pedestrians. Impatient drivers, buses on schedules, taxis on the go, bikers weaving in and out of cars, none of which are guaranteed to follow the rules of the road. Therefore, one must fend for themselves. Cross at your own risk. Be ready to bolt when you hear the violent horn closing in to your right. These are the rules of Paris.

Hop on a train to Munich, and you’ll discover a different scenario.

I found myself standing at an intersection amongst six or so Germans, no cars in sight, and a static red hand across the street. I’m assuming the role of suave Parisian by now, so I dart across the street. Not sensing the herd behind me, I turn around and discover the glare of a disapproving group still standing on the other side. Tsk Tsk. Shortly the light changed, the “walking man” appeared, and the group crossed the street.

So now, I find myself wondering if there is some sort of law governing when a pedestrian can cross the street in Germany, or if I just came across a cautious bunch that did not appreciate my impatience. My unscientific experiment did not produce any concrete evidence, but did reveal the cultural habit in this German city to wait for the crosswalk signal.

Fast forward to this morning in New York City. I emerge from the subway (a system with its own etiquette ignored by many), find my bearings and approach an intersection. The digital box across the street displays a static red hand. I check for oncoming cars, see one in the distance, but decide I can make it. I make it across without having to pick up speed, but I appear to have developed a herd of followers. This is a phenomenon that happens in New York because people watch the flow of movement, not traffic signals. Not realizing the futility of this method, several pedestrians find themselves before a car barreling down the street, laying it on the horn. Fortunately, New Yorkers are alert and driver’s would rather not be inconvenienced by hitting someone.

So what do we learn from all this? Not much, relative to crosswalk laws. They are relatively the same across cities, however, watching the patterns of pedestrians and cars will shed light on urban attitudes. A dominant form of mobility may be revealed, or an intense competition between two may present itself, as we see here in New York.

Ultimately, I just enjoy considering urban conflicts, and the story they tell. From the streets of New York…

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