Traffic and culture

Cultural Insights — By on July 20, 2007 at 12:06 pm

Does a country’s culture influence its traffic conditions? Sure, why not? After all, some countries have orderly traffic in which a majority of drivers adhere to rules, whether they like them or not, and other countries have seemingly more chaotic roadways, but nevertheless a traffic system that is understood and followed by locals. These things don’t just develop in isolation, they are connected to the way people perceive the world.

So I was intrigued to see this recent NY Times piece about the traffic in Cairo, Egypt, in which the writer connects the behavior of drivers to some larger cultural issues. An excerpt:

Chaos. It is often the word associated with Egypt’s roads, its maddening bureaucracy, its ill-prepared health care system. But it is chaos only to the untrained eye, the uninitiated, and in the case of driving here, the weak of heart. There is a system, from top to bottom, which may be corrupt, class-based, inefficient and ineffective, but it is a system nonetheless.

Drivers almost never look behind them. And they rarely look to the side. Instead, the whole flow of cars moves like a school of fish, straight ahead, then weaving, darting in unison. The traffic stops, usually, when a traffic officer steps into the road…

Over all, the Egyptian system seems to function on three basic principles: Every man for himself; when necessary, offer a little baksheesh (cash); and accept that money and connections go first.

“We are people who don’t do things unless someone is there to make us do it,” said Essam Qassem, a cabdriver fighting his way along Hassan Sabry Street in the well-to-do area of Zamalek. “We don’t comply with rules on our own.”

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