Sunday, March 24, 2013

The beauty of traffic

Ha Long Bay. You know the one
I've been in Vietnam for the last two weeks, my third visit in the last three years.  It's a great place, with nice people, some really wonderful sights (this time I went to Ha Long Bay, which is that bay that you've all seen in various films, including what seems like 50% of all James Bond films), and absolutely superb food.

But the thing that tourist guides don't tell you, is how utterly compelling the traffic is.  Now I'm not a big city person for the most part, as you might be able to tell from the fact that I've chosen to live in non-thriving metropolis Csikszereda (and, well, now we've even retreated from the lack of hustle and bustle of there and gone to live in the tranquil village of Bankfalva). Traffic in big cities usually bothers me. A lot. But traffic in Vietnam is different.  It's worse.  And yet, somehow, much much better. Standing at a major intersection is to marvel at the wonder of humanity, to see how people can exist without rules, without limits but still respectfully, working together, somehow creating order out of chaos.  Now this sounds like hippy bullshit, and I've obviously done that deliberately, but while the language may be all a bit unnecessary, the fact is that it's true.

Danang, where I spent the vast majority of my time is, to all intents and purposes a new city, so the roads are on a grid system and are pretty wide.  So there you get these swarms of motorbikes, interspersed with some cars, a few trucks, buses, bikes, rickshaws and people pushing food on carts and barrows.  With pedestrians crossing.  But there are very few rules (or at least there is very little enforcement of rules.  There are a few red lights which people more or less obey). So at intersections (especially ones without traffic lights), you get these incredible mingling of traffic, crossing and turning and intermingling and somehow there are no accidents.  Sometimes you'll see someone trying to turn left across the traffic, and on their own they really have no chance, but then they are joined by one or two or more and suddenly the weight of numbers open the flow and allow them to turn.  Seriously it's absolutely riveting to watch.  You know how you get these huge flocks of starlings flying over a city at dusk twisting and turning and changing direction, forming patterns in the air?  Or how you see huge shoals of fish darting and shifting?  All the time miraculously not having any collisions?  It's like that.  A bit slower, but almost as amazing, just because, well...it's traffic.

Crossing the road on foot in such a situation at first seems like an absolutely impossible task.  You can see the tourists who have just arrived because they spend up to 10 minutes trying to step into the traffic. After a while though you realise that just like with each other the vehicles will adjust, flowing around you.  The worst thing you can do, in fact is to be hesitant - stopping as you cross, and generally behaving unpredictably. After a while it actually becomes enjoyable to cross the road - a sort of 99% safe adrenalin rush.

An alternative is the old quarter in Hanoi, which has the same type of traffic but on narrow streets.  The pavements are crammed with motorbikes, parked (it seems that's what pavements are mostly used for in Vietnam). So the honking flowing traffic squeezes along these narrow dark streets, while the food vendors and the pedestrians weave in amongst them.

Soon, this phenomenon will be dead, though.  As the Vietnamese middle class grows, more and more people are buying cars.  The numbers have visibly and radically increased in the 30 months since I first went. At some point there will be a tipping point at which the number of cars on the road will mean that the flowing amazing mass becomes just gridlock

I'll miss it.  Vietnamese traffic, is weirdly, a thing of almost endless beauty and fascination.  I've dug up some youtube clips of the traffic so you can see it, but even these somehow don't do it justice.  You need to see it up close.  And the Vietnamese tourist office needs to promote it.








3 comments:

ernobius said...

I study Physics, and one of our projects was modelling traffic.When you talked about how order emerges, I actually thought about nature - it's how it happens.
You gave me a good idea with this article :) and if you're interested, you can look up keywords like "agent based traffic flow" or "Dr Dirk Helbing" who has written some well-known papers on the topic.
Cheers :)

Andy Hockley said...

Is Heibing that Dutch planner who has proposed removing traffic signs and road markings from towns? I thought about mentioning him actually but wasn't sure of his name (and also I forgot).

But yes I think he must have been to Vietnam to have reached this realisation :-)

ernobius said...

Helbing is a physicist at Zürich's Insitute of Technology, he's concerned mainly with modelling things, traffic among many other.
The planner's name is Hans Monderman. That is a very interesting experiment, I haven't linked the two ideas before :)
I haven't found anything about whether he ever went to Vietnam, but it still seems likely :)