One complaint that is heard in metropolitan areas worldwide is “bad traffic.” Yet, that phrase can mean very different things in different locations. When I recently returned to the US and heard reference to the traffic problems encountered, I found myself noting the vast discrepancy of terms and expectations. In the US, I hear annoyance express when freeways were moving at 10 mph below the speed-limit, and the occasional aggressive driver who pulls ahead of the moving vehicle easily provokes strong use of negative language (varying in content, length, and volume per individual).
Internally, I’m rolling my eyes, remembering recent experience in Nairobi, Kenya. There you must carefully differentiate between assertiveness and recklessness on the road. To get onto any main traffic thoroughfare, you often have to “push” your way into the long line of cars; otherwise you would be sitting in one place for a long time and those behind you would soon be driving over the curve to get past you. On the other hand, there is a certain hierarchy, based mostly on size, and it is safer to assume the lumbering bus or the aging “matatu” (public transport van) doesn’t see you, allowing them to pass first. The traffic norms (or survival skills?) have to be learned by experience, and for those coming from the US that also includes learning to drive on the opposite sides of the road and car, with enhanced estimation of how much room you have to squeeze around another vehicle. Although my initially white knuckles gradually decreased in tension, driving always required vigilance.
Then there is the condition of the roads. Street signs are infrequent and street lights are lacking, but it is the poor quality of pavement used that takes its toll on the vehicle and the driver. I found it rather ironic that the street near my house had speed bumps, while also displaying impressively large potholes that served a similar purpose. When traffic was light, driving that road felt similar to a video game, swerving to avoid potholes while attempting to not hit oncoming traffic. It was particularly challenging in the rainy season, when the flooding hid these holes and made depth difficult to estimate. The trick is to watch the driver in front of you, without getting too close, which would result in repeatedly being doused in water. If you allow too much space, the driver behind you might try to pass you, also resulting in a wave of mud and water.
The reality is that car accidents in Nairobi are very common, although damage is often relatively minor because of the slow speed during rush hour. At certain times of day it can take hours to drive 15 miles, and because it is so common, traffic time simply needs to be scheduled into your daily calendar. It is part of life. But put in a different perspective, bumper-to-bumper traffic not only reduces casualties, it is also one way to develop the virtues of patience and self-control! (Written with a slight trace of sarcasm.) Unfortunately, I can’t say that outlook was at the forefront of my mind when another van forced its way in front of me or the pedestrians seemed to be going faster than the cars.
We seem to have a human tendency to complain, and there are many cities that would compete for the title of “Worst Traffic in the World.” But there are also many regions that do not have the luxury of “traffic,” lacking in roads, vehicles, or enough funds for anything more than living bare living essentials (if that). Yet, we get annoyed when not catching the green light or flustered if arriving five minutes late after missing an exit. What hardships we face in a nation where buying a used car costs more that than the annual income for 80% of the world’s population (living on $10 a day)! If nothing else, traveling globally has the benefit of putting things in perspective, particularly for those living in the relative wealth of first-world countries.
As a supplement, here is a though provoking video by “Water for Life:”
What most commonly irks you? Would you complain about it if talking to someone from the slums of India, the refugee camps in Sudan, or the typhoon-wrecked villages in the Philippines? What would it look like from their perspective?