Friday, May 7, 2010

Cuenca: City of Horns

Cities have reps. Cities have marketing slogans. Chicago - the Windy City; Detroit - Motown; New York - the Big Apple; Seattle - formerly Jet City, now Coffee City. Cuenca has a new marketing slogan - "todo un mundo," (a whole world.") In many ways this fits - it has beautiful colonial architecture, plenty of traditional folkloric arts, and beautiful parks on the outskirts of the historic downtown. But I'll also remember it as the City of Horns - "Pitobamba" if you will.

I try to imagine what must go thru the heads of the drivers here.... "Here comes a corner and I never learned how to slow down at intersections. I TAP MY HORN - once. There's a buddy of mine - do I owe him money or does he owe me money? I TAP MY HORN- three times. Oh crud, a red light. Oh well, I'll just fire off a quick text message. Oh crap, it's green. I TAP MY HORN- twice. Damn, this traffic is moving slow. Maybe I can pass this truck before I get to the next light. I TAP MY HORN- twice. Oh shoot, that stop sign is coming up way too fast for me to possibly hit my break pedal. I TAP MY HORN- twice. Oh look, there's a cute gringa. Maybe she'll sleep with me if she just notices what an amazing Ecuadoran hunk I am.... I TAP MY HORN- twice...." And so it goes, until, "WHAT is that pedestrian doing in the crosswalk? I better not startle him by using my horn, I'll just gun it..."

Cuenca is a remarkably pedestrian unfriendly city. A lot of the problem is structural. The downtown streets are narrow, and sometimes old buildings obliterate the sidewalk, which in the best of circumstances is usually only about 5' wide. The sidewalks are usually about 6-8" above the street level, and driveway cuts of 45 degrees are frequent, resulting in twisted ankles if you're not careful.

Outside the historic center, many intersections are controlled by "redondels" ("round-abouts"). These are quite easy for drivers to navigate - the basic rule is that the vehicle inside the redondel has the right-of-way. It's easy, an entering vehicle only needs to look to the left. For a pedestrian trying to cross at the corner however, it's like being a duck in one of those arcade shooting galleries! And since 50% of the drivers don't use turn signals, it's a crap-shoot as to whether the vehicle waiting to enter the redondel will go thru it, or will just barely enter it and make a right turn - remember, they are all looking to their left! Zebra-striped crosswalks and even pedestrian signals exist both inside and outside the historic center, but nobody (no driver) pays they least bit attention to them. Every now and then the city will launch some "traffic safety" campaign, but it mostly consists of volunteers scolding pedestrians for not using the crosswalk. It's absurd, because the reality is that it's much safer to cross mid-block, when you can see that the coast is clear.

A curious side note to all this is that I discovered, after I got my bicycle and began riding it in the street, that I am much safer as a bicyclist than I am as a pedestrian. Drivers see me on my bike, and they even yield the right of way to me. Go figure!

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