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Don’t walk July 11, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

My road rage, or, more specifically, pavement rage, knows no bounds. I wanted to write this post for the benefit of your minds and well-beings four days ago but I accidentally popped out for a pint of milk which involved crossing the road, which took four days.

It can take so long to cross the road here that you can witness whole lives play out before your eyes, as long as they’re the type of life which happen at a different speed. As I waited six months to cross the road on one of my recent expeditions – see how it’s pointless ever leaving the house – I saw a couple get married, have their first baby and start divorce proceedings, all at a junction. I saw a child finish school and graduate from university. I saw a toddler clamber down from her father’s back when it became embarrassing to be there with the body of a teenager. Royal dynasties came and went. A putsch occurred but was put down and order restored. People changed from summer to winter dress and back again. Continents moved apart and new seas formed.

All in the space of time it took to cross one street. The only plus side of this forced immobility is that I allow myself to have torrid affairs at traffic lights. I confess all to the Russian the second I get in, so relieved to discover him still alive after such a long separation that infidelity seems trifling. “I don’t know if I’m free, Wolfgang,” I’ll say to Wolfgang who was a bit immature at the start of our relationship but had developed into a fine, respectable citizen by the time we parted some years later. “I think I’ve got a husband. I haven’t seen him for some months because I had to go to the post-office and buy a new belt, which involved crossing three streets, so he might easily have run off with the raggle-taggle gypsies by now, or established a cult, or become Bundeskanzler. No way of knowing.” Wolfgang and I part, him having aged terribly. The cruel, cruel injustice of it all.

All cars’ fault. Not surprising in Germany, perhaps, that cars should be kings of the road. The Germans make every car on earth and they don’t need them held up at traffic lights because how else will they get exported quick enough to make room for new ones? Types have probably worked out, knowing types, how long, ideally, for the cars, pesky pedestrians should be given to cross the road. It was awfully complicated, no doubt, and the formula used every letter in the Greek alphabet and even had to make some new ones up but it was decided that, for traffic to flow optimally, pedestrians should be given one eighteenth of a second every 43rd leap year. The joyous moment, when it comes, releases a rush of such emotional turmoil and civil unrest that the formula is revised.

Yet don’t you think, if you are without Germany’s borders, that our moment, when it comes, is ours alone. Pedestrian joy is not only short-lived. It is shared. With cars. The types worked out that not only should we be given one eighteenth of a second every 43rd leap year to dash across the street but that, for traffic flow to go unhindered, the cars should be able to weave in and out between us. We have the moral authority. But it’s also crystal clear who’s going to blink first if there really is a showdown.

I am always unsure of how to react in such moments. I get home and write a road-crossing manifesto. But so much time elapses between one car-avoiding sprint and the next that all principle goes out the window. But I wonder whether to stand my ground and walk at a smidgen below regular speed, the car nudging ever closer, and defend my pedestrian rights, which makes me feel like a bit of a tosser. Or whether I should up my speed a little for the driver’s (and traffic-flow’s and, thereby, the German economy’s) benefit, worrying the whole time it’ll only encourage them. Or whether I should walk at a very fake normal speed and hope the driver doesn’t realise that my mind is turbid with worry that I’m holding him up, he’s going to run me over and, in attempting to appear normal and unconcerned with external appearance, I have adopted the gait of John Merrick.

Civil disobedience is called for. For I’m only quite sympathetic to a Berlin motorist’s need for perfection on the roads. Our public transport is a dream. I can take a tram from my computer to the bathroom and there’s a price reduction for short-hop journeys. It’s that well-planned. (Though it’s annoying that ticket inspectors have access to my home.) I have some moral objection to travelling underground, like some rat in a tin-can, but bite my lip heroically if needs must. Folk can whiz around this not-too-hilly city on bikes. We have big fat overground trains and some excellently well-appointed railway stations.

The motorists need some mayhem in their life. All this perfection is no good for them. A traffic-jam or two will do them good. The odd low-speed pile-up never did anyone any harm.

If we can just seize control of the traffic lights…


1. sylvia - July 11, 2008

Is it true in Germany you get arrested for jay walking? As a pedestrian, I do waste my life waiting to cross the road, but as a driver, I have to be ever alert to pedestrians just throwing themselves into 6 lanes of traffic within yards of a perfectly pedestrian friendly crossing with lights and stuff.

2. suburbanlife - July 11, 2008

“road-crossing manifesto”, snork, giggle. Great writing as usual, with memorable phrases. You use humour well to underscore a serious dilemma. G

3. IsarSteve - July 11, 2008

It’s that Ruislip problem again… In the depths of Pankow, there are more of those pesky ‘green arrows’ on traffic lights, than are to be found in England Western Berlin.

A DDR invention, they allow vehicles turning right to go through a red light if ‘there’s nothing coming’ (on foot or behind a wheel).

You could be arrested for ‘jay walking’ if you upset a policeman, but generally these days, a raised finger suffices, if you do it blatantly in front of them.
Most Germans are very disciplined and wait at red pedestrian lights, even if there is no traffic. It is also common-pratice for parents to hiss their annoyance, if you cross on red in front of their kids..

4. d.z. bodenberg - July 11, 2008

They can’t just arrest you – you can get penalty points on your driving licence, should you have one. And if you don’t, they get put on file, just incase you should try and get one in the future.

My pavement rage is usually caused by cyclists.

5. marshaklein - July 11, 2008

Ah yes, the “king car”. One of my earliest childhood memories is of being in London with my parents and my father complaining loudly that, if you wanted to cross the road in this city, your best plan was to be “born ON THE OTHER BLOODY SIDE!” I was about five years old at the time, so the majority of the vehicles were horse-drawn.

I have a driving licence but haven’t driven for about 15 years. Do you think being an ex-driver is like being an ex-smoker? Am I “clean” now?

6. Ed Ward - July 12, 2008

Of course, once you *do* get to the other side, there are the double-wide baby-carriages to worry about, with suspensions that put Mercedes to shame, titanium-reinforced bodies, and, inside, all the comforts of home for Junior and Juniorette, including televisions and Playstations. Dunno if the repromania has spread up your way, but it’s going full steam a few blocks south.

The other problem with cars is that, despite it costing thousands to obtain a license here, nobody actually learns to, like, drive. They look the other way when turning corners, and never consider the damage to the bodies and suspensions of their cars if they hit a 200-lb. living human, which is considerable. (They don’t consider the human, of course. Especially if they’re not in a marked crosswalk, which many crossings lack). I once read a book which noted that Berlin drivers, in their sloppiness and addiction to speeding, are the envy of their more restrained brethren in, say, Milan. And I can attest that after driving in Berlin, driving in Italy is no problem whatever.

7. liukchik - July 12, 2008

Yes, but you do have the Ampelmann to entertain you. I dread to think what it would be like not to be able to jaywalk in London – using the Green Cross Code of course – most Central Europeans I know do insist on using crossings, rather than just wandering across when the road is clear.

8. bowleserised - July 12, 2008

As a cyclist, I think Berlin drivers are wonderful and respectful. London would be a whole ‘nother matter.

I saw a little old lady jaywalk in Mitte the other day. Ten yards from a crossing, she was. I thought, “That’s Berlin!”

9. ThePenguin - July 13, 2008

Interesting you should say that, Bowleserised, it’s been my subjective opinion for a while now that Berlin drivers are on the whole much better towards cyclists than they were at the start of the 90s. It’s a significant proportion of cyclists (and I write this as a wire donkey rider myself) who have become the real problem over the last few years.

@liukchik: junctions in the UK constantly confuse me because quite often the pedestrian crossing part doesn’t have its own pedestrian lights, and you have to make an educated guess as to when it’s safe to dodge across. Which is not easy if you’ve just arrived from a right-hand drive country.

10. liukchik - July 13, 2008

In London you have to guess constantly – cyclists have given up completely on red lights, especially couriers, so even if the traffic has stopped, one takes a risk in stepping out. I also now check left and right and left and right, as one-way systems, foreign travel and general fear have made the Green Cross Code somewhat obsolete for me.

11. BiB - July 14, 2008

Liukchik, one of the few enbutchening compliments I have ever received was from a young lady from a really lovely sleepy little town in Suffolk who told me I was good at crossing the road incorrectly. I don’t think I’d come out to her yet so I presume I grabbed her breasts in reaction.

Penguin, I remain the only person in Berlin without a bike. Though I have ridden one once or twice and found it unscary enough, but worry that my own crap bike-skills will put others at danger. I can’t possibly take one hand off the handlebars to indicate without toppling over so always just make a dash for it and hope for the best. Asking for trouble. Hope walking compensates for bikelessness.

B., when I was blissfully young and foolish, I used to (sometimes) cycle to university in London. From Crouch End to Russell Square. It must have taken hours. And I had to do the last bit up a hill in Crouch End on foot, sweaty and breathless. And, yes, London drivers would occasionally try to kill you. I think they found that fun. I learnt quickly not to try and speed through a traffic light that was just about to change to red. Not enough time to get through the junction before stuff started coming at you in different directions.

Ed, I’ve hardly been in cars in Berlin. Though a car did screech to a halt at my shins the other day when it was my turn to cross. But I remember driving through Germany once, as a passenger, natch, and the driver found the Autobahns hilarious. He’d daringly see how fast his car could go now that it was allowed only to see old-woman-hair in a Mercedes tank in his mirror encouraging him at proximity to get out of the way.

Marsha, indeed, you are clean. You’ve kicked the habit. You will never drive again. The road I grew up on in London was very narrow. With all the cars parked on either side of the street, there was only room for one car to drive up and down, yet it was a two-way street, so mini traffic-jams were the backdrop to my youth. Yet it was in a ladder of streets, so I said, almost non-stop for years on end, that I would write to the council and say, “Make alternate streets one-way in opposite directions.” Never did, of course. (Was on a slope, too. If I went to visit my mother by bike, had to push the bastard the last few metres too.)

D.Z., I too am perturbed by the pavement cyclist. Especially when they have their nice rutted paths to cycle along. Or, if not, what’s wrong with the road? I happily cycled down the road bit of Danziger Strasse not that long ago, on a DB bike (hired for me by a pal), and didn’t die once. Mind you, I saw two friends both cycling backwards the other day, on the pavement, and I suppose, on this occasion, I had to endorse their caution.

Steve, I’ve occasionally had that parental hiss. I probably am more likely to not walk if I see a child at the lights, depending on how lentilly and, therefore, hissy their parents look. And I’d forgotten about that Ossi arrow. Someone told me about it very soon after I’d arrived here, thinking I’d need to cosmopolitanise my highway code. I nodded and didn’t dare admit that I couldn’t even drive. Next time I’m over your way buying bath-plugs and Levi’s, I’ll compare the road-crossing experience and get back to you with a comparative study.

Suburbanlife, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say so. I suppose I should almost appreciate the people-watching opportunities having to stand around for months at a time affords. Mind you, just as well I work at home and am not in a rush to go anywhere. If I had an office job, I imagine I’d be months late every day. “Sorry, I had to cross a road.”

Sylvia, it’s one of those near-mythic legends about Germany and I’ve never quite known whether it’s true or not so am glad that D.Z. has confirmed. I once heard a tour-guide taking a group of freshly-arrived tourists on their tour and one of the first thing she warned them about was jaywalking. So it’s grabbed the imagination.

12. d.z. bodenberg - July 14, 2008

BiB, you are my twin at being a dangerous wobbly English bike-rider (i.e. non-cyclist). It’s uncanny.

13. BiB - July 15, 2008

d.z., can you cycle uphill? I keep wanting to have a go at that standing-up-cycling thing that people do to go uphill, but am always too scared to try it out in case, like with indicating, it instantly makes me topple over straight into the path of an oncoming, careering-out-of-control bulldozer. I’m not too bad in a straight line on the flat though. But still think it best that I stick to feet and public transport.

14. varske - July 18, 2008

As a rebellion against all that obeying the traffic lights in Slovenia and the relief of being able to dodge the cars and weave across the road in the UK I have arrived in Georgia. There you may weave at your peril. The cars come straight at you and you better get out of the way. I have yet to see the conflict that must occur in the Georgian driver’s mind when beset by the need to steer towards a passing pedestrian at the same time as the need to avoid a pothole or manhole in the road to protect his suspension.

15. Cuckoo - July 22, 2008

Come to India, you’ll learn new ways to cross the roads, that too different ways in different cities with different kind of vehicles trying to compete with each other.
Whenever I come back to India, I have to unlearn many things. :)

Probably I’ll write a post on this one day.

16. YEisHere - July 24, 2008



Wow, thanks for the much needed look at real life — it’s just sooooo much work getting across the road or even to the back yard anymore!


You’re ‘aight wit me!’. . . and that’s saying something!

17. BiB - July 29, 2008

YE, things will remain impossible until we sprout wings. Though branches may need to be reinforced.

Cuckoo, that would make a very nice read, and I’m sure an Indian road-crossing experience is a lot hairier than the average German one. I remember one pal being very happy, on his one and only visit to India, to see an elephant being led down a Bombay street.

Varske, ha! Good dilemma. What is more important? Forgoing the chance to kill some damned nuisance human or saving your car? Perhaps it’s best you are yet to witness the conflict. Is Slovenia all orderly then? Honestly. They’re not proper Slavs at all.

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