Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Porteño Pedestrian: Theory & Practice

I’ve written several times about Argentine traffic safety in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, suggesting that the first rule of pedestrian survival is to appreciate that you are invisible, but it’s a topic that never seems to go away. Only a few days ago, the daily Clarín reported that pedestrian deaths in the Argentine capital have are running roughly 50 percent ahead of last year, with an average of five per month. City buses and trucks are the usual culprits.

According to Alberto Silveira, of Luchemos por la Vida (an NGO whose slogan is “road safety is no accident”), part of the problem is inadequate infrastructure: removing buses from narrow streets, turning others in pedestrian malls, and widening sidewalks would make the city safer. In the colonial barrio of San Telmo, some sidewalks are only 60 cm wide (barely two feet).

Silveira also suggests closing some streets to through traffic and installing speed bumps, though my own anecdotal observations would suggest that the speed bumps are ineffective - many Porteño drivers don’t hesitate to fly over them. On the other hand, in my own Palermo neighborhood, I’ve seen a few blocks with speed dips - in reality, gutters that help drain waters in heavy storms but are also effective in slowing drivers who don’t want to scrape the undercarriage of their vehicles. One taxi driver there told me it keeps everybody honest.

These infrastructural solutions, though, are much easier to implement than changing the habits of Argentine drivers, few of whom would ever consider yielding right of way to a pedestrian. The Clarín story notes that “the buses that come down Avenida Córdoba turn onto Cerrito at full speed, without respecting pedestrian priority and forcing them to sprint across.” Even the young and agile can find crossing 12-lane Avenida Libertador (pictured above and below) a challenge and, according to one traffic study cited by Luchemos, there are more than 700,000 violations of pedestrian right of way in the city every day. In a month, that totals more than 21 million, but leads to only 39 citations - an average of roughly one for every 540,000 violations.

There is, of course, the issue of pedestrian culpability. While it’s true that many ignore traffic signals and even cross mid-block, I’ve always thought that, given the habits of Argentine drivers, pedestrians have to try to cross wherever it’s feasible. That said, contemporary technology is now a contributor to the hazard - pedestrians texting on smartphones certainly bear responsibility when they stroll obliviously into the street, even if cars and buses are far more lethal. In theory, pedestrian violations are subject to citations and fines, but those are even rarer than moving violations for vehicles.

Speaking of moving violations, those should in principle become more common, as the Buenos Aires city legislature reduced speed limits for public buses last month: from 80 to 60 km per hour in major avenues, and 60 to 50 km per hour in other avenues. Unfortunately, the limit on normal streets remains 40 km per hour, rather than dropping to 30, and the new law does not apply to passenger automobiles. Even then, bringing down the death toll would require serious traffic law enforcement - the factor that is most lacking.

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3 comments:

  1. By the standards of Latin America, drivers in Buenos Aires are quite respectful of pedestrians. I've been in Sao Paulo, Lima and Bogota and all cities were much more with drivers never hesitating to let a pedestrian cross as often [though not always] happens in Buenos Aires.

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  2. Other than Argentina, my Latin American experience is mostly with Chile and Uruguay, where drivers are far better behaved - the only incident I've ever experienced was Montevideo, where the car that nearly ran me over had Argentine plates. It is undeniable that Argentina has some of the world's highest traffic fatality rates - in the western hemisphere, only Mexico's is higher. Brazilian and Uruguay rates are barely half those in Argentina.

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  3. I'd have to agree with Wayne's assessment. After 6 years of living here in BA I don't think more than a couple of times I've ever seen a driver yield to a pedestrian, and when they do it's usually only because there are several people crossing at the same time. I can't begin to count the number of times I've nearly been hit, and that includes drivers who run red lights and/or turn on red lights, drivers who run up on the sidewalk because they're trying to get around slow traffic, and the worst, the drivers who turn right from a lefthand lane or left from a righthand lane, completely unexpectedly (and, of course, without signalling, which Argentine drivers virtually never do). I've never encountered this bad of driving anywhere else in Latin America.

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