Red Light, Green Light

Sunday, October 2, 2016

I’ve been back in Baku for about a month now and settling in reasonably well. The new hotel room isn’t as cozy as my old apartment, but now that I’ve moved around the furniture and stuck things on the walls and bought a few plants, it’s feeling more like home. And it’s got a basic kitchen with a two-burner hob, which means I can cook for myself. I suspect some sort of toaster oven thing will be necessary when the cold weather hits, so one could possibly roast a chicken or sweet potato (if one could find a sweet potato) but more importantly, I’ve figured out how to get The Great British Bake Off, so it’s all good.

Here's the entrance and kitchen area. Not bad!

And here's the living room. The bed is separated from the lounge area, which helps the whole "not-a-hotel-room" vibe.

This hotel is in a different neighbourhood to the old apartment, which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall was near the old city. Now I’m further east next to the main metro station and near a big modern mall. It takes 15 minutes to walk to the office in the morning (mostly pleasant) but this means I’ve got no regular crosswording time (kind of disappointing). It’s also a much busier area, with quite a different vibe. The walk to and from work is, as I’ve said, pleasant, but it does involve crossing some busy streets, which can be disconcerting. You always need to be on your toes as a pedestrian in Baku, but this time around it feels like pedestrian v. car is a central fact of life.

Some things have improved in the year I’ve been away. For instance, a lot of the street lights now have countdown timers that show how long before a red light will turn green, and then count down again to when the green light will turn red. This is highly useful for pedestrians attempting to cross four lanes of Bakuvian traffic. And they’ve also painted zebra crossings (crosswalks) at a lot of places too. Even more surprisingly, cars will generally stop when you venture out into a zebra crossing. True, there is still a gut-churning moment when you need to poke yourself far enough out into the street that it becomes clear to oncoming traffic that you intend to cross. And then you have to wait for each lane to stop, which happens in a sort of wave ahead of you. Helpfully, cars will often turn on their hazard lights (4-way flashers) to let you know they’re going to stop. (Presumably because slowing down gradually and thus telegraphing your intentions to the waiting pedestrian is, er, not A Thing here.)

So that’s all good, right? Well, not entirely. Yes, there are zebra crossing that mostly work when they exist in isolation. Where the system falls down is when a zebra crossing appears along with traffice lights - in a controlled intersection. It feels like the Bakuvian pedestrian is slightly confused on the topic of zebra crossings. True, when there are no traffic lights governing the junction, a zebra crossing is a great way to get people safely across the road. However, there seems to be a general feeling that a zebra crossing trumps all other forms of traffic control, including red lights. This means that you sometimes see pedestrians blithely diving out into oncoming traffic against a red light, forcing traffic to stop for them. Sometime this includes mothers pushing children in strollers (push-chairs). It’s terrifying. Honestly Baku, where are you going that it’s so important you need to get there 37 seconds sooner? You don't appear to be bleeding or in labour, so what's the rush? In fact, further observations reveals that zebra crossing or not, Baku pedestrians are quite used to fending for themselves and simply cross whenever and wherever they want.

But let’s not assume cars are innocent in this equation either. Yes, they mostly obey the red and green lights, but Bakuvian traffic control has not achieved the dizzying heights of the Left Turn Arrow yet so as a pedestrian, even if you’re crossing with the light, you still have to dodge cars that are turning across your path. They will generally stop but it’s clearly done begrudgingly, and always at the last moment. There have been a few times when I’ve involuntarily produced alarmed noises and gestures at a driver who’s stopped about 8 inches from my path while trying to turn through a pack of crossing pedestrians.

A view from the ninth floor of the hotel. This is a “controlled” intersection. I don’t even know what to say about this.

But topping all this is another bit of traffic mayhem on the way to the office. I like to call it The Triangle of Doom, for reasons that I hope will become clear. (And apologies in advance because this is a bit hard to explain without charts and maps and a laser pointer.) It's all about the intersection of Uzeyir Hajibeyov* Street and Azadliq** Prospect… yikes. Uzeyir Hajibeyov is six lanes of fast-moving west-bound traffic. Azadliq is three lanes, one way, moving south. Most of the traffic on the big westbound street wants to continue moving west but needs to jog a bit south on Azadliq before it goes west again one block later. This means that most of the cars in those six lanes of fast moving traffic have to squeeze into the three left-hand lanes that turn onto Azadliq. Naturally, this squeeze happens at the last minute, which means there’s quite a lot of high-speed lane-changing and cutting in that happens right at the intersection. An accident waiting to happen.

This is bad enough, but add pedestrians into the mix and it becomes gut-churning. If you’re a pedestrian trying to cross through this intersection, you might think you were in luck because there are zebra crossings and countdown timers in both directions. Sort of. There is a normal zebra crossing on the north side across Azadliq, but there is no zebra crossing on the west side across Uzeyir Hajibeyov. To get across the larger street you have to negotiate a two-stage right-angled zebra crossing. Rather than spanning the entire width of the road, the crossing includes an intermediate island in the middle of the intersection. And when I say “island” what I mean is “triangle painted on the road”. We're not talking about a raised concrete area with, say, big cement bollards or iron fences between pedestrians and the oncoming traffic. It’s just a spot in the middle of the road where you wait while six lanes of crazed traffic whiz past and squeeze together while aiming directly at you. It’s The Triangle of Doom.

Triangle of Doom
A low angle picture of the intersection, with helpful annotations

I can’t tell you how awful this is. I did it a few times but it was so terrifying that I have instituted a personal policy of never ever ever waiting in the Triangle of Doom. This means that I cross Azadliq on the normal zebra crossing. Then you’d think it would be a simple matter of crossing Uzeyir Hajibeyov from north to south on another zebra crossing. Ha! Of course there IS NO zebra crossing marked there! Don’t ask me why. Perhaps the Venerable Brotherhood Of Bakuvian Funeral Directors lobbied hard during the planning stages. Instead I cross where there should be a zebra crossing when the oncoming mayhem of the westbound traffic is stopped for the red light. Unfortunately this means that technically, I’m jaywalking. Also unfortunately, there are often police stationed at this intersection in the morning who issue tickets to pedestrians, which I suppose is a good thing and should be encouraged. However, what would be an EVEN BETTER thing would be if they didn’t require pedestrians to risk their lives in order to NOT incur a 20 manat fine. On days when the police are hanging about, I walk further down the block and cross. And if I have to, I’ll walk around the whole damned block. Because the Triangle of Doom is (bad language warning) FUCKING INSANE.

Having said that, I do actually go through the ToD on my morning run, but that’s when my path (north east corner to south east corner) means the lights allow me to cross completely without having to wait in the ToD, so that’s an entirely different thing. And on the way home in the evening it's possible to time things just right that you arrive in the Triangle of Doom just as the oncoming traffic stops for the red light, eliminating the wait. But honestly, the fact that I have to devote this much time and energy to negotiating a single intersection safely is indicative of the fact that on many levels, Azerbainjan just isn't quite there yet.

Ranting aside, it is encouraging to see these improvements in Baku traffic management. The countdown timers and the zebra crossing are genuinely better than what was here before (which was nothing). Last week I actually saw police pulling over a car that had run a red light! And while I might complain, issuing tickets to pedestrians as well as drivers should eventually teach people not to plunge into oncoming traffic. I do find it frustrating though, because a solution for the bigger, more dangerous intersections is so blindingly obvious. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will probably already have realised that without any added infrastructure costs, they could simply re-sequence the traffic lights to allow a pedestrians-only phase. As follows:
  1. Cars going one way. 
  2. Cars going the other way. 
  3. People only, going every way. 
  4. Repeat. 
This would solve the problem and completely eliminate the deadly wait in the Triangle of Doom and also let all those left-turning people at other intersections proceed without pesky pedestrians getting in the way. However, I suspect Bakuvian drivers would find it hard to cede those precious seconds of spittle-flecked, lead-footed forward motion. For now, I’ll continue to allow and extra five minutes for my morning commute to the office.

And in other news, by the time this post is published I'll be in Serbia! I'm taking a few days of holiday time to meet up with friends from home Rob and Wes, who are on a longer trip that includes a four day stay in Belgrade. They'd already booked an Airbnb that sleeps seven, so they figured they could probably squeeze me in, especially since I'm vaguely in the area these days. AGSWPLRs will recall Rob and Wes from a particularly memorable dinner in London. This time around Wes has booked a 6 hour private food tour of the city, whose guide has instructed us to arrive hungry, which is very promising. And there's the Nikola Tesla Museum and a tour of underground Cold War bunkers and, most importantly, a few days of really good company and catching up that are long overdue. Who knows, maybe there will even be a Belgrade blog...

(*Uzeyir Hajibeyov, after whom the street is named, is one of Azerbaijan's most famous composers. He wrote the national anthem, is seen as the father of classical music in Azerbaijan and was the first composer of an opera in the Islamic world. He’s also the inspiration for the Uzeyir Hajibeyov Annual Music Festival. I went to a concert that was part of the festival a while back, and it was great. A visiting orchestra from Germany performed Beethoven in Baku’s Philharmonic Hall, which is a tiny but amazingly lovely venue near the old city.)

Here's the outside of the hall. Very picturesque.

And here’s the orchestra rehearsing in the space.

(** And Azadliq is the name of a major newspaper in Baku. I have no idea why they named a street after it. Or perhaps the newspaper is named after the street?)

1 Comment:

Kathryn said...

Holy Heck! That picture of the cars/intersection! ACK!!

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