Wellington may only be just over an hour away from Dunedin by plane, but it’s a whole other place. Different bugs, different weather, different houses, different culture.
One of the things I notice as I drive around the town is a certain je ne sais quoi in the driving and pedestrian populations. Every town has its own particular rules and assumptions when it comes to the interaction of cars and people.
In Vancouver, pedestrians rule. I saw people beating on the bonnets of cars that were in their way, while hurling abuse at the unfortunate drivers. And, I accidentally stopped traffic a number of times by stepping up to a corner to wait for the cars to pass. I’d be staring off into space, only to find that all the cars I was waiting for had stopped and were politely waiting for me to cross. It took some getting used to.
In San Jose, cars rule. Drivers ignore pedestrians entirely even when they’re on the road right in front of them. It’s up to the pedestrian to get out of the way, no matter how old, infirm, or heavily pregnant they might be. I took an alarming ride with my gynaecologist to the Santa Rita Clinic one afternoon. He barreled down the skinny bumpy roads in his nice new Jaguar, while talking to me and answering a page on his cellphone. An old guy stepped onto the road close enough to us that I started the ineffectual braking on the mat of the nervous passenger. But my doctor made no acknowledgement of the man’s presence and the man didn’t seem to expect him to. We drove on at our breakneck pace and the old guy skipped out of the way. I was freaked out but everyone else knew exactly what was going on.
In Wellington, the rules aren’t so easy to figure out. Pedestrians get hit here on a pretty regular basis. And it’s because they simply step out without looking, as if they’re the only users of the roads. Vancouverites will at least make eye contact with passing drivers before they walk. But that doesn’t happen here. Pedestrians wander across pedestrian crossings when you’re only metres from them, or dart out from between parked cars into the middle of the road, or meander in front of buses, or cross two lanes of traffic after the lights have gone green. It’s as if ignoring the cars will make them go away or something.
Trying to change lanes only reinforces the impression that you shouldn’t really be on the road. Turn on your indicator and any gaps around you immediately close as the drivers do their best to deny you any space. People will abruptly speed up past you, drive across the front of the car, or slow down beside you to keep you in place. It all makes for an exciting commuting experience.