Posts Tagged ‘traffic’

Rethink this!

April 2, 2010

After indicating, the large bus swings to the left, right in front of the taxi but the driver’s having none of it. He works his car horn incessantly until we, the passengers, tell him to “take care and slow down”. The mid and tail section of the bus fly past the taxi bonnet with less than an inch to spare. “Plus de peur que du mal”, as they’re fond of saying here but this blog could have just as easily ended halfway the motorway between Patte d’Oie and Dakar Centre. Smashed between an unyielding bus, the crash barrier and the bloody mindedness of a taxi driver.

Here’s the thing. It’s frequently said that a country’s character can be gleaned from the way people drive but this needs a re-think.

Dakar’s roads are murder. Complete and dangerous anarchy. One reason I am not frequently going to Le Plateau is precisely because I don’t want to subject myself to yet another kamikaze driver who thinks nothing of overtaking an overloaded “car rapide” with a lorry ahead, then veers manically to another lane to avoid said lorry while answering a phonecall.

But go into any shop and politeness reigns supreme. You’d get on the wrong side of folks for not greeting them in the morning. However: once a Dakarois gets behind the wheel, he becomes a full-blooded anarchist with one message to the other road users: your job is to get the hell out of my way. And before you start: yes, the women are just as bad.

Monrovia, Liberia. In this massively overcrowded city the most common greeting in a shop is not the delightful “Asalaamu aleikoum”, as is the case in Dakar. You’re either met with compete stony indifference or with a “Whaddayawant?” barked at you. People are, in the main, pretty damn rude in Monrovia. But Tubman Boulevard, the main drag through a large part of the city is as busy as Dakar’s thoroughfares and a masterclass in decent driving. People don’t rush, give way and – something utterly unthinkable in Dakar – stop for crossing pedestrians.

So here it is: driving seems to be the exact opposite of a country’s (or, let’s be fair: a city’s) character. Surely, this cannot possibly be a reflection of residual foreign influence?

[Huge generalization alert!] America – Liberia’s creator – is brash, loud and crass but drives impeccably. France – Senegal’s former colonial power – indulges in the good life and good manners but drives appallingly badly.

But Liberia turns 163 this year and Senegal will be 50 this weekend. Surely these influences fall away at some point?

Well: there you have it. Just a few thoughts after another murderous morning on a Dakar highway.

Oh and by the way: there are decent taxi drivers around. I have his number.

L’Autoroute de l’Aéroport – 2

December 2, 2009

Alright, we’re halfway now.

Everything whooshes by at breakneck speed. Looks like they’re all in a massive hurry here.

Watch.

Watch again.

No, you can’t go now.

Wait.

Small gap…run!

Made it. We’re on the other side.

Walk out of my street and there it is: a wide open expanse, with four roads. In the middle, the Big One. Two-ways each way – although Senegalese drivers can turn it into a three-way each way at will. On either side, smaller side roads for the local traffic. An astonishing number of cars, buses, lorries, taxis, ancient hugely polluting Renault minibuses driven by born anarchists – someone with a keen sense of irony decided to call them “car rapide” -, motors, mopeds, horse-drawn carts… Everything on wheels nervously flits from one end to the other – ah, and people. Who need to cross. Because I am here but my bakery is on the other side and so is the shop that sells groceries at a better price, or my friends…

Right, so how do you cross one of the busiest four-laners in town? By taking life into your own hands. Hundreds do just that every single day. Mothers with children on their backs, agile young boys and girls, street vendors with their stuff, businessmen with briefcases, reckless streetkids, absolutely everyone makes that run across the deadly asphalt, rests for a bit between those two waist-high concrete walls. (There some space between them, where the lampposts stand and the dirt piles up.)

Yes, I can see your question hovering over L’Autoroute for some time now. Is there no other way to cross the road? Well, there is now. At long last, the two footbridges on either side of the long curve have finally been completed. For years, the only things that were visible were the foundations, two pillars upon which the bridge would be built – eventually. And because people wanted to go to their friends, the grocer, Yoff Market and their tailor, they started crossing the road randomly. With all the attendant hazards. At one very busy point, right at the end of my street, they even cut away bits of that wall in the middle so they could walk through.

‘You can’t change peoples’ habits,’ says my namesake who runs a stall selling fruits and vegetables. ‘And besides, those bridges are too far apart. I want one here, right in front of my stall.’ Good point. Where he is, it’s one of the busiest crossing points and even though the authorities have now closed the illegal gaps in the separation wall, most people still can’t be asked to make a mile-long detour and take the nearest footbridge.

L’Autoroute de l’Aéroport – 1

November 30, 2009

Watch.

Watch again.

Don’t move, you can’t go now. See? Another one whizzes by.

Watch.

And wait.

Now! Nope – too late, here’s anther one coming. Fast.

Can’t win here, can you….?

Ah but now – there’s a small gap. Run!

Yes – you’ve made it…but you’re only half way. Get safe first – between the two walls smack in the middle.

Careful, as you climb the second wall for your next attempt. They’re rushing past you now, at close range. One false move and you’re done.

************

A tale about this part of Dakar must surely begin by its most prominent feature by far: the massive motorway that swings in a majestic curve from one end of the village to the other and cuts the entire area neatly into two. L’Autoroute de l’Aéroport.

I was raised in a village that had been cruelly bisected by just such a motorway in the 1960s. Not so long ago I heard about plans to get rid of the four decades old four-lane eyesore that sits on a massive dyke and runs through the entire breadth of the village. These days, building a motorway right through a quiet residential area is not the best way to make friends with the locals.

Not so in Dakar. And that’s not because you wouldn’t find any NIMBYS here. But there wasn’t a great deal of choice in the matter for two reasons. First, there is the traffic itself. For those who remember, indeed: It Was Hell. Getting from the centre to the airport was a gruelling two-hour trip in a never-ending traffic jam. Leave town on the one road that will take you to next-door Rufisque and beyond and you’ll get an idea of how bad it was. Standing still in the burning heat, moving three meters – and standing still again as the sun beats down and fumes from cars, buses and lorries throw the equivalent of three packets of Camels in your face. They are building a new road here, too, but it’s not yet finished.

The second reason is even more straightforward. It’s the topography of Dakar. A city planner’s nightmare. The centre sits on a piece of rock that juts out into the sea. Few ways in – few ways out. Imagine having to crawl to your work Every Single Day to the most inaccessible part of town where they happen to have built all the offices, the port, the railway station, the government buildings, the entertainment places – everything.  You have to thank the French for that… It was OK half a century ago when Dakar was still a smallish settlement high on that rock (called Le Plateau) and places like Yoff were remote fishing villages but this place has grown so spectacularly fast that even the last generation would not recognise it.

Yoff, my friends, is BOOMING. It is one gigantic building site, has been for some time. All of Dakar expands in all directions – except that there is hardly anywhere it can go. The ocean surrounds the entire peninsula that is home to the rest of the city so there is a limit to where you can build. You can either go inland – or you can go skywards. They’re doing both.

So by the time the idea was born to replace the clogged-up streets by a network of massive multi-lane roads, they had to work with an area that was both seriously limited and seriously built up. Here in Yoff, L’Autoroute de l’Aéroport had to wrench its way through a densely populated neighbourhood. If you travel on any of the other new roads and look carefully, you will see the remains of knocked-down residences, shops. All made way for progress – or at least the current president’s idea of progress. But that’s anther story. Oh and by the way: getting from Le Plateau to the airport today is a pleasant 20-minute ride. And that’s on a bad day.