Weaving between motorcycles – The art of crossing the street in Kathmandu

Learning to cross the street is something you learn at a very young age.  But did you know that it’s not the same everywhere?  Of course you should know that some countries drive on the left-hand side, while others drive on the right-hand side of the road.  Although most parents teach that you should look BOTH ways before crossing the street, the order of the looks changes based on which way the traffic is coming from.  You should always look last to where the traffic is actually coming from, lest you be hit by a car while crossing!  However, this is not the only thing that changes between countries.  I have mentioned in a previous blog about traffic in Ghana, about the difference between crossing a street that is predominantly filled with cars vs. motorcycles. So this blog will teach you how to cross a street in Kathmandu, Nepal (well, as much as you can learn about crossing the street by reading and watching videos anyway – the best way to learn if definitely through real-world experience!)

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Some intersections can look a bit chaotic if you’re from a Western country with a different type of traffic system.

Kathmandu is very different from Ottawa in how traffic flows.  In Ottawa, we have plenty of stop signs and traffic lights at almost every intersection in the city.  People are legally required to follow the posted (and unposted) traffic laws – such as driving under the maximum speed for a given road, not driving through red lights, and biking in the appropriate lanes.  In Kathmandu there are no traffic lights or signs, lots of traffic police, and many large traffic circles (as well as Y shaped intersections, or other less geometric road configurations).  There’s a lot more focus on using the horn to warn other vehicles of your presence, and there are no regulations about staying in the appropriate lane – weaving is encouraged.  Motorcycles are expected to weave around obstacles, including cars, potholes, and people crossing (and a majority of the traffic is motorcycles and scooters).

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Traffic police stand on or near a central median in the middle of the intersection (which usually also has a statue of some sort on it), and give hand signals to drivers about which direction of traffic is allowed to go through the intersection at any given time.  They usually wear navy blue uniforms and white caps. Parking is also less strict, and it seems like people can pull over or part in any spot (unless it’s a large, designated public transportation area – where traffic police will encourage drivers to go in the area designated for their type of vehicle, and will encourage buses and taxis from not staying in one spot for too long).  Long queues for petrol often block the street (at least for the past few months).  They can stretch for miles down the street and can block 1-3 lanes of traffic (forcing cars to drive in the lanes of oncoming traffic to actually use the street for driving).

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Here are a couple videos I took out of my office window (when I was working at Sana Hastakala) which better illustrate the art of crossing the street in Kathmandu:

(Sorry, not sure why this one is sideways or how to fix it…) You can see that people progress slowly across the road, judging one lane of traffic at a time, which is different from the North American system of crossing all at once at designated spots and times (like at traffic lights with a walk signal).

It is safe to cross the street alone or in groups.  However, you will never have no traffic (unless it’s the middle of the night), so you must always assess the type and size of vehicles that are coming towards you, as well as the speed, in order to cross safely.

You can see that people are afraid to cross in front of cars, trucks, and other large vehicles, but have no problem crossing in front of motorcycles, bicycles, and other small vehicles.

You need a real sense of confidence to cross the street here.  If you hesitate or suck at making split-second decisions, it can take you a long time to cross the street.  You can see in this video that the woman is a bit afraid to cross and has to wait for the group of men to cross before she can get across.

Hint: If you’re a newcomer in pretty much any city in the world, standing next to other people and crossing when others cross is a good way to learn about the safe ways to cross a road, including local traffic patterns and societal customs in your area.  Hopefully, you can build up your confidence and knowledge over time – otherwise, you might spend a lot of time in the middle of the road, terrified by the cars zooming past!

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This wraps up my “transportation week” – I hope you learned something new about Bangladesh and Nepal!

So, I’d love to hear about how you cross the street in your part of the world! Please share with others in the comments.

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This blog is one in a series about transportation in various countries.  To read similar blogs, check out the links below:

  1. Ghana – Trotro Etiquette: Your Guide to Getting Around Ghana!
  2. Nepal – How to get around in Kathmandu – Transport in Nepal
  3. Bangladesh – The madness that never ends! – Traffic in Dhaka
  4. Nepal – Walking Past Paradise: My Commute to Work in Nepal
  5. Bangladesh – Getting Around in Dhaka – Rickshaws, Buses, Cars, and CNGs
  6. Nepal – Weaving between motorcycles – The art of crossing the street in Kathmandu
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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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