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From: Sandy Lubkin
Date: Sun, 22 Jun 1997 14:29:37 +0000
Subject: Moscow Traffic

When I was a teenager, learning how to drive, I was told many horror stories about drivers from other areas. Tourists who didn't know how to drive on our twisty, narrow mountain roads were bad enough, but drivers from California were the worst! [This was also about the time of the infamous "freeway shootings" in the Los Angeles (I think...) area.]

Imagine my surprise when I start driving around in California, including getting caught in Los Angeles at rush hour, and find that the drivers are responsible, safe and courtious in general. There are always exceptions.

So when I first read about Moscow drivers, I took the cautions with a grain of salt. I went ahead and got my international driver's license, although I decided that I wouldn't drive in Moscow for the first month or two, to give me time to get familiar with the street signs and the flow of traffic.

Our friends Shura and Irene met us at the airport and we all piled into their car for our first drive through the grand city of Moscow.

We hadn't gotten out of the airport before I decided that there's no way I will ever try to drive in this city. I thought I was over-reacting to parking lot traffic, notorious back home in the US as being some of the most unsafe. The situation didn't improve when we got into the streets.

Lane markings don't seem to be of much interest to motorists. We were driving along a major avenue, marked as being three lanes in either direction. Traffic was driving along five lanes abreast.

Drivers weave in and out of lanes with only centimeters of clearance between themselves and the cars on any side of them. No one here seems to have any idea of driving defensively. Quite the opposite. If you can't drive offensively, you'll never get anywhere.

And then there are U-turns... U-turns were illegal where I learned to drive, but I learned to accept them in California as being safe enough and quite handy at times. And then there are U-turns Moscow- style... Remember the lane markings? Remember how people drove as-many-abreast-as-would-fit? Imagine the same thing happening during a U-turn... It wouldn't be as unnerving, if the cars stayed in some semblance of order: i.e., the car on the inside of the turn at the beginning would be on the inside of the turn at the end. But everyone in the U-turn frenzy seems to need to change lanes, too. Imagine five cars doing a U-turn in one place, and all changing lanes, merging with existing traffic (also weaving and changing lanes). It's pretty frightening, especially when you're a pedestrian, trying to cross at the cross-walk there.

Watching the cars at a traffic signal is educational. It's noisy with all the drivers honking at each other; it looks like a free-for-all, with drivers going every-which-way, turning from what seems to me to be the wrong lane, weaving around cars blocking the intersection, heading into the melee before the traffic from the other direction has stopped, continuing to enter the intersection after getting a stop signal. Come to think of it, it's just like home, except for the degree. There is one difference I've noticed, and it continues to amaze me. I have not yet seen, heard or seen sign of any kind of fender-bender. How they keep from hitting each other is a mystery to me.

At a lot of the main intersections, there are little booths like the control towers of an airport, only smaller. They are staffed by the local traffic police. I'm not sure what all they do. I try to make it a habit not to stare at any of the police - I don't want to attract any more attention than I have to.

Being a pedestrian in Moscow is quite an adventure in itself - quite enough excitement for me. Motorists have right of way. Pedestrians are not safe, even in crosswalks, even with a crossing signal. (That's quite different from "Pedestrians always have right of way, no matter what stupid thing they're doing" as it's practiced in California and Washington/Oregon, where I learned to drive.) It seems that when I'm in a pedestrian crossing, automobilists actually speed up and swerve for me. It's interesting to note that the people in the signs marking crosswalks here all look like they're *running* across the streets. Good advice!

Staying on the sidewalks is no guarantee either - motorists pull onto sidewalks (up over the curb - these cars must have pretty good ground -clearance) to park and sometimes to drive around looking for an entrance to a building.

And it'a advisable to look both ways at a one-way street. Just because it looks like it ought to be, doesn't mean that it is. There is a street to the side of our building which looks like a standard divided street back home. There is a parking lane, a lane, a park- like area with trees, another lane, and another parking lane. Around all this are sidewalks and buildings. Looks like each lane should be one way. But each is a two-way street. When two cars meet going in opposite directions, it seems that the first one to honk gets right-of- way.

Pedestrians are not totally at the mercy of automobiles. Most of the major intersections have nice pedestrian underpasses. They are interesting in themselves. Each one seems to have some interesting pattern in the stonework or tilework of which it's made. There are also frequently people standing around in them trying to sell things. This varies from the permanent newsstands (which are obviously intended to be there) to the little old lady selling bunches of posies. During rush hour, the underpass near our Metro station is almost solidly lined with peddlars. Here's a man with a box of cucumbers and tomatoes. There's a lady with a dress; She's just standing next to the wall holding up a dress. There's a very unhappy-looking little old lady (and here, "little old lady" is meant literally - some of them aren't chest-high on me, and I'm not what most would consider tall) with a fine china tea set spread out on a blanket in front of her. Is she selling off her prized possessions to keep a roof over her head? I often wish I could talk to some of these people, and learn their stories. Instead I just watch and imagine.

All text and pictures copyright 1997 Sandy and Bela Lubkin, all rights reserved.