I really like this place.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico- When I first noticed this I thought the lights were broken and made a joke to myself about how San Juan is still Latin America. But then I saw it again and again and realized it was no accident. I don’t know the details but it seems clear that San Juan has intentionally flipped off many of its traffic lights.
This isn’t third world; it’s progressive.
The reasoning is simple: when there are no traffic lights on crowded intersections drivers are more attentive, negotiate their positions organically, and traffic moves continuously and faster — and safer — than it would otherwise. This is a page taken right out of Dhaka, a place where traffic lights would slow traffic from a turtle crawl to a stand still. This is also something that’s being piloted in cities across the US and is a movement that has swept across Europe, where it was discovered that stop signs and traffic lights are more of a problem than a solution. On top of that, a Cornell University study actually discovered that stop signs make people drive faster. Another position is that along with increasing congestion, traffic lights and stop signs increase carbon emissions …
It is my impression that traffic is safest when everyone is always paying attention to what’s going on and are actively involved in vehicular dialogue rather than depending on machines and protocols to tell us what to do. The problem with the latter methods, in my opinion, is that we rely on machines rather than ourselves, we expect people to follow the rules, and when there is a disruption to this pattern there’s problems. It is my position that traffic is safest when nobody takes it for granted that the other guy is going to stop, sees you, the red light, the car in front of them … that’s relying on too many unknowns.
I was a little slow to notice this in San Juan. I actually stood at the crosswalk at a turned off streetlight the first time until a car honked and waived me across like I was some kind of dumbass. It wasn’t until I saw this a few times that I realized that it was a thing. Then crossing became easy — you just make eye contact with the driver on each lane that you cross and negotiate your way across the street. That’s actually how you should probably cross the street no matter what.
Outside of the tourist area of Old San Juan, San Juan is not a pretty city. It’s overtly pragmatic, patchworked together, concurrently falling down and being built anew. Raw cinder blocks, frayed knots of power lines, and block-like, faceless concrete buildings are ubiquitous. But the people here seem to have noticed that drab concrete walls are the perfect canvas for giant murals. They’re all over the place, giving the city a vibrant, colorful, real kind of feel. These murals seem to say “we live here and this is who we are.” They give the place life and something to look at. They’ve essentially turned an ugly city into an open air art gallery.
San Juan is one of my favorite cities in the Americas. There’s multiple strips of just restaurants, cafes, and bars. There’s some of the best urban beaches in the world. There’s a core party zone. There’s an incredibly beautiful old town. There’s public space and areas to just hang out. And while it doesn’t have the same international flavor as a place like Astoria, it does have this radiating vibrancy of the local. This is a place that still knows what it is.
But it’s time to be moving on.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
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