Rules of the Road: Bishkek

I biked even owned a moped in three of China’s biggest cities. Biking in China was exhilarating.

Driving in Bishkek is terrifying.  Here’s why:

There are three guiding “Rules of the Road” in Bishkek: 1) All Rules are Relative; 2) He with the Biggest Vehicle/Greatest Audacity has Right of Way; and 3) (as a fellow American co-worker …and legal specialist… put it), Attempting to Stick to The Road Rules is A Terribly Dangerous Thing to Do.

  1. All Rules are Relative: An exception: most people do stop at traffic lights, usually.  Unless they’re rushing through in the last seconds of marigold orange.  But everything else is a mere suggestion: parking spaces? Why stay in the lines when that requires you to take time out of your day and park with precision? Cars don’t stop at crosswalks, and pedestrians often cross in the middle of the street (even if there’s a crosswalk 20 feet from where they’re standing). Even if you’re on a crosswalk, any car approaching while wildly honking it’s horn will not stop.  Two lanes turn into three, and cars will sometimes even jump over the middle line in an attempt to drive to the front of a back up – facing down cars driving in the opposite direction. While it is rare to see cars driving on the sidewalks as an alternative to street (unlike, for example, Foshan, where I was regularly honked at while driving down the bike lane carved out of the elevated sidewalk), yesterday a number of drivers tired of waiting at a backed up stoplight decided instead to steer their vehicles down the rough patch of dirt between road and railway track.  So – lines, lanes, right of way – eh…
  2. Right of Way Is the Right of the (Wo)Man with the Greatest Audacity and Biggest Vehicle: In practice this often means Marshrutka drivers, which my former students at Manas deplored as “the worst drivers in Bishkek and cause of most of the city’s traffic woes”. While I wouldn’t single out just the marshrutka drivers, they certainly do sometimes push and budge and switch lanes and drive on the wrong side of the road with apparent disregard for any of the other vehicles on the road.  Certain ‘status SUV drivers’ will do the same – just push their way in and expect everyone to move over, or drive headlong down the wrong side of the road and expect everyone who would otherwise smash into them to switch lanes. And most of the time it works, which is why the behavior continues. When challenged, pedestrians and other drivers usually don’t assert themselves.  Last week I was crossing Chuy on Sovietskaya when a red land rover that had tried to jump ahead by driving left of the middle line was faced with oncoming traffic; the driver suddenly started to drive into my lane (meaning I’d either have to switch over the the right lane – occupied by a marshrutka – or slow down and risk being tapped from behind). When I honked at his dangerous driving he turned and started yelling at me. Because apparently I’m the one at fault here for not accompanying his audacious behavior (and sense of self-importance).
  3. Attempting to Stick to The Road Rules is A Terribly Dangerous Thing to Do: Unfortunately the legal-expert expat is pretty accurate with this one.  Due to everything mentioned above, trying to stay in one lane, cross at the crosswalks (or sometimes even stop for pedestrians who would like to use the crosswalks) or follow many of the other myriad road rules quite simply isn’t safe, because it puts you at odds with the general traffic flow.  For while the road might at first (second, third, forty-seventh…) glance seem like utter chaos, there actually is a system to the way people drive.  It just doesn’t fully align with the official traffic regulations that are supposed to define the way people drive.

The two underlying issues – and why I feel less secure behind the wheel of a car in Bishkek than I do perched atop a bike in China – is that there isn’t just anticipation of the law, and there’s very low sense of community commitment.  The de-facto driving culture that does exist is still quite dangerous and inefficient; if more people had sufficient motivation to follow the actual road rules (and assurances that others would also comply), then the situation would be much different.  But where people don’t feel they will be punished for acting like an ass or endangering others on the road, and where drivers don’t expect most other drivers to keep everybody’s interests and safety in mind – the situation isn’t going to get any better.  And unless I have to take the car somewhere, I honestly prefer to take the bus.

Also, interesting note: scanning over the Traffic Regulations of Kyrgyzstan: any official who stops your vehicle and asks to see your documents and licence must comply if you ask to first see their official identification (2.4). I’ve never seen a policeman here show an actual ID before asking for documents.

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