Like gorging on street food of uncertain provenance or accepting your host’s home brew served in an antifreeze jug, crossing the street ranks among the top potentially treacherous experiences in a new destination – and the most amusingly worry-free in others.
The golden rules? Find out about the destination’s laws before you travel, study how the locals do it when you get there, and always apply common sense. Seriously: keep your wits about you at all times. Not so seriously: some (entirely subjective) knowledge of street-crossing conventions around the world won’t hurt. Not as much as being blindsided by a scooter’s side-view mirror anyway.
New Yorkers apparently struggle with the concept of mortality. They will meander into the street without so much as a sideways glance, crosswalk or no crosswalk. After many senselessly shattered kneecaps, drivers are now accustomed to this habit and know better than to trust a pedestrian to see a car until they’re under it. As a visitor to New York, I suggest just a hair more vigilance.
Look – but don’t look – before you cross, if you catch my drift. First make certain you’re not about to step in front of a speeding truck, and then just step off the curb like it’s an extension of the sidewalk. If you look for too long and make eye contact with a driver, you surrender your implied right of way: now the driver knows you see them and, if you have any brains, you won’t step in front of their moving vehicle.
Romans stop their vehicles for exactly two reasons: nuns and to answer phone calls from their mothers. When trying to negotiate an uncontrolled crosswalk in Rome, the secret is pace: step off the curb, walk slowly but steadily, and the flow of traffic will magically part around you.
It’s terrifying the first few times, but you’ll get used to it. If you’re still hesitant, cross in the shadow of a local and you’ll be fine. Unfortunately, the first instinct most people have – step, wait, two steps, hesitate in case a scooter doesn’t see you, sprint at an opening – is a sure-fire way to get winged. If you stutter-step, you’ll screw up drivers’ timing and either end up having your toes flattened or at the very least prompt a chorus of angry horns.
Crossing an uncontrolled intersection in Vietnam is similar to crossing in Rome, but with 36 percent more butt-clenching. By my calculation, there are 2.7 scooters for every man, woman, and child in Vietnam and these scooters are almost always in motion.
Traffic is like a flash flood that never ends, so if you want to see something other than the block your hostel is on you’re just gonna have to go for it. Again, walk at a slow, steady pace and scooters will race around you like post-game football fans around a slick of vomit. If you stop or suddenly accelerate you’ll learn how unexpectedly painful a side-view mirror impact feels at 25 mph.
When it all goes smoothly, crossing the street here is safe and orderly, with a charming combination of polite drivers and apologetic pedestrians. However, the thoughtful ‘Look right’ directions painted on the streets aren’t quite enough to reroute many visitors’ lifetime of instinctual wiring to look left for cars.
Throw in all the one-way streets and the cyclists that can come at you from anywhere and it’s a wonder that standard travel insurance covers the United Kingdom at all. I advise visitors to get into the habit of looking both ways at every crossing no matter what the paint on the street tells you.
To cross the street in Bangkok you must briefly become a traffic cop. As you step into the street, hold up your hand or do the downward pat-the-dog motion, instructing drivers to stop as you cross. I’ve never seen what happens if you fail to do this little bit of DIY traffic directing, but I don’t wanna find out.
This is a weird situation. The roads are chaos in India, with traffic weaving wherever, vehicles overtaking on both sides, and horns blaring all the while. This makes any attempt at timing and anticipation almost impossible for pedestrians.
And yet, amazingly, drivers are (usually) on the lookout for pedestrians and will stop as soon as you step in their path. Alternatively, you can just wait for a cow to cross and keep it company as all the traffic carefully yields.
Germany/Vienna/Seattle et al
There’s a bizarre phenomenon in a variety of destinations: people only cross the street at designated crosswalks and never against a red light. This instinct seems to be caused by one of two things: social programming from birth or police that are particularly enthusiastic about issuing jaywalking tickets. Either way, you should follow the locals’ lead.
Legally, like in all of the US, pedestrians have the right of way in Los Angeles, but unofficially this is a car-priority culture and drivers know it. The only reason you walk in LA? To reach the gas station, with a gas can in hand, after your car runs out of fuel in a line of traffic queuing for... you guessed it, folks... a gas station. To add to pedestrians’ indignity, this is yet another destination where police happily bust people for jaywalking.
You may or may not have seen a video mash-up of Russian dashboard cameras showing some breathtakingly reckless driving and easily avoidable accidents. Since one of these extravagant pile-ups can happen at any time in Russia, I suggest crossing the street in a helicopter. I’m talking building to building, of course, because you’re not really safe on the sidewalk, either.
I haven’t experienced this first-hand, but I’m told people cross streets in Lebanon as if it’s a real-life game of Frogger: they just take it one lane at a time, waiting in the middle of speeding traffic until there's an opening across the next lane. This imminent danger is reportedly ‘quite fun once you get the hang of it’.
An utter-a-prayer, update-your-will situation, pure and simple; crosswalks and street lights in Cairo are both rare and ignored.