Friday, November 18, 2011

Strong nerves and sure feet get you across the road in Port Moresby

by Geoffrey Heard

In a town where most people are on foot, there is remarkably little consideration given to pedestrians in Port Moresby. Everywhere in this city, you will see pedestrians diving through traffic to cross roads. There are few traffic lights or pedestrian crossings and particularly in the case of the latter, these are more honored in the breach than otherwise.

In fact, rather than catering for pedestrians, when the vast majority on foot have found their own way through the actively anti-pedestrian vehicular morass, the traffic policy makers have gone out of their way to place hurdles in their path -- literally!

Take the situation between the outward bound and inward bound PMV (Passenger Motor Vehicle -- minibus) stops at 4 Mile/Boroko, a busy shopping and gathering area for the many and an important bus interchange. Boroko is on the southern side and 4 Mile on the northern side of a major road, the Sir Hubert Murray Highway, four lanes of tearing traffic with a half meter (2 foot or so) island in the middle.

If you wish to cross the Sir Hubert Murray Highway to shop, go to the bank, take your child to school, visit the clinic, reach your house, change bus direction, or whatever, you can choose the only pedestrian bridge in Papua New Guinea or dash across the road through the traffic.

Most choose the dash through speeding, patently unfriendly car, bus, and truck traffic for three reasons. The first is that much of the time, the bridge is simply far too narrow to carry the traffic -- it is just wide enough for two people to pass in opposite directions. The second is that it is a favorite haunt of pickpockets, bag snatchers, muggers, and other low lifes ready to take advantage of any crush developing (a bunch of suspects lurks at the 4 Mile end of the bridge; I’ve spotted a couple on the Boroko side too). The third problem is inconvenience; the bridge takes you a block out of the direct way to most destinations.

To take their chance on the road, people step over the bus stop crash barrier, climb down to road level using one of two footholds* in the stone retaining wall, then dash to sanctuary on the narrow dividing island when there’s a break in traffic. They then make the quick dash through a break in the traffic in the opposite direction to get to the other side.

People have been making this death defying dash forever. So sooner or later, the authorities had to do something about it. They might have provided a secure pedestrian crossing (i.e. one with traffic lights) or built another, wider bridge. But instead, last year (2010) they built a fence along the middle of the traffic island to try to stop the pedestrians!

What the hey? Where are they supposed to go? Queue up to be mugged on the bridge?

Fortunately, however, the anti-pedestrian forces suffered a reverse due to their own incompetence -- the fence is too low to stop many pedestrians. They can step over it, albeit with a little difficulty for the shorter legged members of the community or ladies in skirts or laplaps since the top of the fence is somewhat spiked and you could catch your clothing on it or do a nasty injury to yourself if you slipped halfway. So the less able, including mothers with toddlers in hand and school-age children in tow, are seen sidling down the median strip to the end of the fence with traffic roaring past at 60+ kph (35+ mph) within touching distance.

They do it, though, because they figure this is safer and faster than the bridge.

The same disregard for the needs of pedestrians an be seen throughout Port Moresby. One intersection with traffic lights on Waigani Drive (six lanes, three each way) offers a marked pedestrian crossing from one side to the median divider -- but nothing beyond that! One speculates about the fate of the law-abiding pedestrian trapped on the island. Will they ever reach the other side? Tune in tomorrow for an update! :)

There are the occasional zebra pedestrian crossings; the wise walker waits until the road is clear before crossing (as s/he would if there was no marked crossing there) because most drivers seem to regard them as legitimate prey.
It’s the darting dash or nothing.

I’m told this anti-pedestrianism s not just a Port Moresby phenomenon but in the islands, Rabaul/Kokopo and Kavieng, car, bus, and truck drivers have a much more friendly attitude towards those of lesser perambulatory means. Six lanes of traffic grinding to a halt for a lone pedestrian on the zebra crossing to the main market in Kokopo is routine while an inebriated cyclist I saw wobbling along the wrong side of the road in Kavieng was in more danger of skinned knees from falling off than of being run down by a truck.

So what is it that makes Port Moresby so anti the person on foot? Maybe it’s just the big town environment where people are strangers. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous street crime; drivers who stop for pedestrians at the zebra crossing in Koki have found themselves the victims of armed hold-ups. Or maybe it’s just a tough town where everyone is scratching for an advantage and once they get it, hold on to it grimly. Perhaps those who have got off their feet and into a motor vehicle don;t actually wish to inflict body harm or worse on pedestrians but are are simply making a point about status.

*I have a foolish little vanity that I am the only white person in Port Moresby who knows about those footholds and routinely uses them -- small things amuse small minds. That;'s my inverted status symbol, I suppose. :) ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2011.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.