Friday, January 19, 2007

Watch your step! Pavement in Antwerp

In Antwerp, as in many large cities, there are many ways to be run over in the street. In addition to cars and trucks, buses and bicycles, here in Antwerp electric trams run on rails all through the city, and they are very quiet until they're all but on top of you. As a pedestrian, it helps to know the clues that will take you and your little children safely to your destination.

Unless you like playing real-life Frogger, take care to cross streets ONLY at crosswalks and ONLY when the light is green. Motorists are quite friendly to pedestrians who are waiting to cross at a crosswalk and we haven't had too many experiences with aggressive drivers. They will wait patiently for you to cross. If you choose a corner with no crosswalk, though, it's as though you're invisible. Nobody will stop for you...some people speed up just to make the point.

And red means stop, no matter your mode of transport. Even pedestrians wait until the light turns green. We don't see too many people making their own judgment that the coast is clear.

Watch for trams! Rails embedded in the cobblestones make it pretty obvious where the trams run. On some of the narrow streets, they come pretty close to the curbs, so keep your little ones between you and the buildings. These are not good streets for gutter-puddle splashing.

Finally, stay out of the bicycle paths! On the busier streets, bicycles have their own lanes up on the sidewalk. The bicycle paths are paved with red brick or stone or asphalt and the bicycles have separate crossings at lights. There are a lot of bicycle commuters in Antwerp. People are going to work, going shopping, taking two kids to school, one on the handlebars and one over the back wheel. They get going at a pretty fast clip, and you don't want to get in their way. At corners, leave room for cyclists to get back up on the path from the road. This may mean you have to wait a good distance back from the corner!

I find myself looking down as soon as traffic patterns are at all complicated. Between the cobblestones, tram tracks, and red bicycle pavement, there's plenty to watch for.

Don't despair: there are some great pedestrian-friendly places in Antwerp. On the Meir shopping street, you can relax a bit, though there are still tram crossings and the occasional car or delivery van. There are beautiful plazas where pedestrians have the upper hand. This morning we even discovered a lovely botanical garden we hope to get back to when it's not so muddy.

With so many different forms of transport using the same roads, it could be chaotic. But because everyone generally follows the rules of the road, with a civil attitude worthy of praise, it seems to work out ok.

Side note: you may have heard of the strong storms that swept through northern Europe yesterday, causing all kinds of chaos with the trains and planes. We were spared the worst of it though we certainly felt and heard the gale-force winds I saw a huge piece of metal roof flashing lying on the ground last night, and the wind (which had calmed significantly) was still strong enough to throw the pulley on a construction crane around like a yo-yo.

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