Complete Streets, SE Asia Edition

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I’m sure there have been many doctoral degrees granted on the study of transportation in developing countries but I have to add my observations and speculations without a shred of data but only observation. For those of you trained in planning, my apologies up front.

In the US, one of the movements gaining traction these last few years is ‘Complete Streets’. Basically the idea that streets have to be designed for ALL users, not just the automobile. Chicago gained some notoriety in the last year by mandating a change in approach such that street design would be done with consideration of the following priorities in descending order of importance: Pedestrians, transit, bicycles, and, at the bottom, cars. This simple statement has the potential to truly change how we get around cities and should make it safer for the must vulnerable users.

This is interesting to me as I travel around Cambodia and Laos these last few weeks as everywhere I travel I see the results of the rapid ascendance of scooters and cars. 20+ years ago when I traveled last in SE Asia scooters were mostly evident in the larger cities and wealthier countries but they are now commonplace just about everywhere. Cars are coming on strong but are still for the affluent it seems as they seem to make up only 5-10% of traffic (at least in Laos and Cambodia). As vehicle use changes in a generation or less, clearly the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. In many places scooters, cars and trucks are parked on sidewalks (if there are any) or completely blocking walking paths forcing pedestrians into traffic.

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Bigger, faster, more expensive makes the rules
As a pedestrian here you can’t help but feel that your job is to ‘Get Out of the Way!’ In most hierarchical societies I have visited, wealth ordains certain privileges and nowhere is it more apparent than on the street. In California there is still some modicum of respect for the pedestrian but here it feels like a battle. Most car drivers in California still give pedestrians right of way at crosswalks whereas in SE Asia, pedestrians seem to be expected to know their place. And that place is in the dirt and puddles weaving between cars, motos, construction, feral dogs and trash on the edge of the road.

So in a generation or less many developing countries have gone from relative walking and cycling paradise to the first world model of having to integrate disparate modes onto roads not designed to mix 60kg people and 2000kg machines.

Is this just the natural evolution of technology? That we implement ‘advancements’ before we know how to integrate them? Scooters are faster than bike or foot travel so it allows a villager to have a job in another location that pays better. How does one deny her that opportunity? Maybe that scooter allows a Mother to get her child in for more regular medical attention. If you have the resources why wouldn’t YOU buy one if it meant a better life for your family?

The traffic flow here is not quite lawless, but is mostly chaotic. Pedestrians know that nobody will stop for them, unless there is the rare traffic signal (and even then please be careful), so to cross a street you step into traffic and start, stop and weave until you get to the other side. Vehicles will mostly steer around you and it seems bad form to run across the street. If you’re in a vehicle (bikes included) and want to turn left across traffic you don’t stop at an intersection and wait for an opening, you continue on and cross to the side of opposing traffic and ride/drive on the far left until you get to your street then turn left (still opposing traffic) and eventually cross over to the other side of the street and merge with traffic. Chaotic for new arrivals like me, but totally expected by the locals so it (mostly) works. As a pedestrian it does mean that crossing the street is a bit harder (look 4 ways as they teach kids now) but I’m still uninjured.

Naturally, this all makes me wonder how the transportation infrastructure evolves. In an ideal (and likely more expensive world), the infrastructure would develop in anticipation of the needs of all the users. But the reality is that it’s easy to buy a car or scooter and start using it before society is ready for it but considerably harder to modify or create the infrastructure to allow all users to use the roads in relative comfort and safety.

So maybe the model that so frustrates cyclists and pedestrians in the US is just part of the natural evolution of transportation infrastructure. Regardless, it’s frustrating to watch the process occur everywhere as if we never learned anything.

Thankfully we’re trying to do a better job in the US than in the past. Do any of you know what is being done in the developing world to not repeat our mistakes? I would like to hear.

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