Bored with your daily commute? Here’s a game to play while driving around the suburbs. Give way to any pedestrians you come across : those trying to cross a road, at a traffic signal or stop street, pedestrian crossing or just some random spot. The reactions you will get are, as they say, priceless. My number one favorite is give-way tag. I stop and wave my hand saying: “please go”. The pedestrian, graciously, waves back, saying: “No! You first!” I gesture back: “Really! I mean it!” and then I nod and smile. “I am not mad!” I try to say. I really am happy for them to go, and so they trot across, grinning from ear to ear, bags flailing, thrilled to have been both gracious to me, and to get priority on a road. All this within the space of a minute. In return for my 30 second wait I get that warm feeling which comes from (as Princess Diana named them), “random acts of kindness”.
The reactions to these giveway gestures are many, and reflect the rich variety of the human condition. There are the surly young men who, with their swaggering tell me in body language that they, of course, have the right to the road and so it is only proper that I stop. There are the energetic women, who gallop across, glad for the break I give, but worried that the gap may close too soon. There are the schoolchildren who woop and sprint and nudge each other and giggle. There are plenty of grateful smiles, and proud lifted chins, but the most humbling are the old and frail. They simply look relieved. Finally, they seem to say, I have been noticed. Now I can have a chance to cross safely. Who knows how long that eighty year old stood there?
The reactions of fellow motorists are similarly varied, from shame, to dismay, through to astonishment and rage at my bizarrely deferential stance towards pedestrians. Truly, it seems this is odd, unacceptable, even revolutionary, behavior in Cape Town. The pedestrians crossing in front of me are frequently accompanied by scowls, or the horns of cars behind my stationary vehicle. I like to think of myself as humane for doing this, but others drivers seem to judge me as a radical. When did deference and respect for others become so counter-culture?
These experiences came to mind recently when I reflected, as part of the Open Streets working group, on our working tag-line, and shared aspiration, which is to “foster streets which embed and generate respect for one another regardless of who we are and how we move.” As working group members coming from different backgrounds, it took us a while to find this shared expression of what we believe in. Even now it can feel a bit idealistic, nostalgic even, for these commercially material and media-spinning times. But I firmly believe that aspirations like this have the potential to bridge barriers: of race, age, gender, income and neighborhood. It’s easy to talk about an integrated city, finding practical ways to make it happen is much harder. “Open Streets” as a philosophy, a daily behaviour, a programme, or as an aim provides one way of moving towards integration.
Changing the culture of our streets away from aggression, rage and disconnection, we believe, will require many changes. One change, possible for all drivers from today, is the embedding of respect for one another during the simple activity of driving through the City. This can mean small acts of kindness to others on the road. It can mean quite literally “giving way” on the street regardless of who you meet and how they move. It can mean slowing down while driving next to those walking. Or allowing the pedestrians time to finish crossing. Giving way to your fellow driver. Thinking the best of them, rather than the worst. These small daily random acts of kindness are commonplace in other cultures, and there is no reason why they can’t become commonplace in ours. Each one sends a small but powerful message about worthiness and equality. As well as respect.