Traffic belies the heart of a nation.
In the US, driving habits vary across states – headier in LA, passive-aggressively Minnesota-nice in Minnesota; all-around fairly law-abiding and balanced between individualistic and an internal obligation for fairness.
In China everyone would like to get ahead, but is resigned to their fate sitting in traffic. Drivers can be pushy, but (at least in the east coast cities), won’t make really obvious and unusual illegal moves, though there are certain rules that everybody flaunts (together), like driving and parking on the sidewalks. No one wants to stand out, but everyone will break rules that they perceive everyone else is already breaking.
As I noted last week, in up-and-coming Almaty, drivers are decently courteous, letting other cars in, not suddenly lane-jumping, and laying light on the horn. A city working towards middle class values and aspiring to universal middle-class respect.
And in Bishkek… yesterday evening it took us an hour to traverse 8 kilometers during rush hour, half of it on back roads. Partially because there isn’t an effective public transportation system – and isn’t likely to be one soon, as the city is out of money (uh, traffic bribes?). Also because the city’s traffic lights are almost exclusively two-way (i.e., there’s no green left-turn arrow), and thus left-turning cars can back up for blocks; but mostly because drivers are really selfish and commonly put their own temporary benefit above the greater common good when they are in the driver’s seat, blocked from the world by their tinted black windows. For example, left-turning cars will wait until the light is flashing to turn. Some are still turning when the light is red, and thus they block the stream of traffic that now has a green light. Because one or two people can’t wait until the next change of lights, twenty or thirty cars can’t get through the intersection each time and back-ups behind the traffic lights grow blocks long. For example, impatient drivers will pop out of their lane and roar down the middle of the road to cut in the front of the line of cars waiting to turn – but the’ll also block all the oncoming traffic, or at least cause everyone driving in the opposite direction to slow down or funnel into one lane to avoid collision. For example, someone decides to make a U-turn in the middle of a busy street, and cars on both sides back up while they make their maneuver. For example, for example, for example. (And I’m not even going to start on trying to navigate the city as a pedestrian, or police and their persistent bribery…) In America someone would probably just hit the errant driver (out of indignation and a sense of higher justice). But here people just pout and honk. Or not, because they’re so used to it.
On the roads people act as they will because their identity is hidden, their actions have no long-term social repercussions.
Traffic – is the small arena where it’s easiest to see that Bishkek is not a democracy, that people have neither fear or respect for law, nor a commitment to the common good, nor a general respect for other residents. If I were to reform one thing in this city, it would be traffic – enforcing just and abiding traffic laws, enforcing at least the appearance and act of respect between residents on the roads. For laws enforced and followed create habits; habits generate expectations, and expectations of just treatment in one sector of society would eventually embolden people to demand it in others.