Published on Let's Talk Development

The road not shared: Turning to the arts to help increase pedestrian safety

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The Creative Wealth of Nations is a series of blogs related to Patrick Kabanda's forthcoming book on the performing arts in development.

It was a scene I still can’t forget.
A few years ago on a busy Kampala intersection, cars zoomed by while pedestrians braced themselves to cross a road. They lurched back and forth, like a fence being blown hither and tither by heavy winds. In frustration, a voice of a woman with a baby tucked on her back cried out: senga no wabawo atusasira. “I wish someone would be kind to us.”

This was my home city, where I grew up hearing such counsel: “If you see a car, run away from it! Don’t play on the road. ” What I never heard was this: “Mind pedestrians if you start driving. Let them cross the road.” Today, go figure. In many developing countries, as more and more people drive, the rule of law and civility are not keeping up, and pedestrian safety is getting worse.
Five years ago I wrote about this issue in a Ugandan newspaper. That opinion, I guess, didn’t matter. But then the other day I stumbled across a figure: “More than 5000 pedestrians are killed on the world’s roads each week. This is because their needs have been neglected for decades, often in favor of motorized transport,’ ” says Etienne Krug of the World Health Organization. “ ‘We need to rethink the way we organize our transport systems to make walking safe and save pedestrian lives.’ ”
Surely, these pedestrians are mothers and fathers, and students and breadwinners. Their safety is a moral imperative. But as the World Health Organization notes, the economic losses are nothing to sneeze at: in general, road “traffic crashes cause not only grief and suffering;” they also cause “economic losses to victims, their families, communities and nations as a whole, costing countries on average 3 percent of their gross national product.” Moreover, indirect “costs, such as loss of productivity, damage to vehicles and property, reduced quality of life and other factors, must also be included in calculating the true cost to society.”
As the World Bank notes, road traffic injuries across the globe are largely predictable and preventable. Yet they “represent the eighth-leading cause of death in the world, and 90 percent of those traffic injuries occur in developing countries.” The Bank marked Road Safety Week (May 4-7) with a focus on improving children’s safety. A Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020 and the 2nd Global High-Level Conference on Road Safety are also welcome events.

But among the menu of safety strategies, who knew the arts are super viable?

Former mayor of Bogotá Antanas Mockus, a professor of philosophy “had little patience with conventional wisdom,” as he wrote in his recent New York Times piece, “The Art of Changing a City.” Nonetheless, he knew that “people respond to humor and playfulness from politicians.” Indeed, though it’s been a while since I heard him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I recall him as a thinker armed with contagious humor.

Like most cities, “Bogotá had a great many problems” when Mockus took office. These included “chaotic and dangerous” traffic. But he devised radical strategies that helped drop Bogotá’s traffic fatalities from “an average of 1,300 per year to about 600” within a decade. In one area, he replaced “corrupt traffic police officers with mime artists. The idea was that instead of cops handing out tickets and pocketing fines, these performers would ‘police’ drivers’ behavior by communicating with mime — for instance, pretending to be hurt or offended when a vehicle ignored the pedestrian right of way in a crosswalk.” Skeptics scoffed, “but change is possible. People began to obey traffic signals and, for the first time, they respected crosswalks.”

The test is how to sustain this change, as Mockus observes. But as he concludes, we should “never forget that huge changes can be achieved through surprisingly small steps.” Let’s hope that these steps, however tiny, will one day help those like the child of that woman in Kampala cross a road safely.

Now, that’s a scene I’d rather remember.


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