Friday, May 9, 2014

No Maps, No Street Names, No Traffic Signals, No Accidents

This time last year I was in China collecting data for a research project.  While the trip itself was rewarding because the research expedition was successful, I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the experience.  I liked visiting the Great Wall and buying beautiful silk Chinese clothes.  But towards the end of the trip I was tired of the excessive pollution and crowded spaces.  One of the things I learned was that despite traffic laws, the average speed of cars in Beijing is 9 miles per hour.  Yes, NINE.  The reason being that the streets are so congested the cars can’t go any faster even if they wanted to.

In a few of the big cities in Africa you do see excessive vehicular traffic.  And there are no emissions laws anywhere on the continent from what I can tell, so most of the public transportation (combis, matutus, boda-bodas, etc.) are constantly discharging cough-inducing bellows of black smoke.  There aren’t many people here with personal vehicles, except of course for the diplomats, NGOs and businessmen making their millions.

In general, the roads are in poor condition regardless of where you are, and the organization of those roads is even more appalling.  I mentioned in a previous post that maps simply don’t exist here.  Most people can’t read maps anyway due to the inability to understand directions.  When I was taking driving lessons my instructor never once told me to turn left or right.  He would just point, “Go that way.”  This is typical because very few people know their right from their left.  To top it all off, most streets are not given names.  They may have had names at one point, but no one knows the name and there certainly aren’t any street signs anywhere.  Years ago several African countries mounted street signs in an effort to instill upon their citizens a sense of location and place names.  This was a failed experiment as all the street signs were promptly stolen and melted down for scrap metal.  None of those signs have been replaced as it is a losing battle and too costly.  On top of all these challenges, perhaps one of the most glaring is the lack of working robots (traffic lights).  Currently in Botswana we do not have a SINGLE working robot due to power outages.

A few weeks ago I was in Ethiopia for a layover.  I was in Addis Ababa, the capital, which is a huge city by African standards.  I found it interesting that there were practically no traffic signals anywhere in the city.  Instead, most of the traffic was governed by roundabouts and general courtesy.  Here is one of the main intersections where traffic is converging from six different streets.  I find it amazing that somehow they manage to actually make it work:


  1. We saw something similar in Xian, China, but yours above is the worst I have EVER seen. And very few collisions!! Go figure.

  2. I have been to a traffic circle in Xian as well, however the traffic was much closer together. The main attraction in the city is of course:

  3. Phil and Bryce, I remember that traffic circle in Xian when I went to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. Yes, Xian was pretty bad, but I agree with Phil that Ethiopia is worse.