Pave it forward – The best city (streets) in the world
By Brigham Golden
I don’t know if it is “The Best City in The World», but I know for certain that San Miguel’s city streets are among the most unique in the world. Not for their famous colors and cobblestoned charm, but for the rules and ethics that govern them.
When I think about the human qualities that make our pueblo special –its intimacy, friendliness, diversity and civic spirit, I am certain our unique city streets play an essential role in fostering them.
Our unique city streets
Sanmiguelenses might take it for granted, but it’s truly remarkable: We live in a dense urban area of more than 100,000 people, whose city center has not a single stop sign nor stoplight, where no road has right of way, where horns are prohibited, and people generally don’t bother to use directional signals. Most streets are one-way, but many are too narrow for passing or parking, so are frequently and easily blocked. A few of these single-lane streets are even open to two-way traffic (figure that one out!) –and a handful are so narrow that wide vehicles can get stuck, something a few visitors in Hummers have discovered only too late.
Then there are the pedestrians, which are everywhere and only growing in number. Ranging from wandering tourists and locals hustling to work, to families with children and expat seniors –not to mention the processions of giant festooned “mojiganga’ efigies, religious devotees, funerals and wedding parties– these myriads squeeze onto tiny sidewalks, often spilling onto the streets between slow-moving vehicles. Add to this bustling chaos the steep hills and wildly uneven cobblestones that are the federally mandated paving, and it seems almost absurd that San Miguel is renowned as a walking town, since it is so challenging for pedestrians. (The Tourism Association would never admit it, but a long-standing moniker for San Miguel amongst expat locals is “The City of Fallen Women»).
And yet, despite all these obstacles, the streets of San Miguel de Allende are nothing less than a stage for a sublime civic order; a world-class dance of urban cooperation.
Our street rules and ethics
For drivers in San Miguel, the formal rules are clear. Signs around the city announce the speed limit: 15 km/hour. The remaining rules are presented in eight iconographs plastered on the back of every public bus. Three are especially notable:
Drivers take turns at EVERY intersection: “one-by-one”.
Pedestrians ALWAYS have the right of way.
Honking is PROHIBITED.
These formal rules, which might be unique to San Miguel, are the foundation of an unwritten ethical culture which governs our streets through Patience, Communication and Courtesy. Because every intersection is a challenge, requiring cooperation to negotiate tight spaces together in turns. Communication between drivers is essential, always through eye contact and hand signals, never the harsh remonstrance of a honking horn.
Another challenging feature of driving in San Miguel is finding yourself blocked to a standstill –or blocking others. Because unloading anything on the narrow streets of San Miguel requires stopping the traffic behind you. As a result, everyone is enmeshed in a courteous dance of unloading as fast as we can, or waiting as long as we must. And we wait because we know that soon enough we will need others to wait for us. As the saying goes, we pay it forward.
Though not officially mandated of course, pedestrians follow many of these same rules. The narrow sidewalks demand that we wait or step off to allow others to pass. And here too courtesy governs: the young and healthy step aside for old or infirmed, and everyone waits for parades and processions to pass. As pedestrians our eyes are always in motion, looking down to make sure our steps are sure, up to make eye contact with passersby, and around to capture the singular beauty of the “Pueblo magico”.
Whether or not San Miguel’s streets are unique in Mexico, their order seems to follow ethics that any Mexican would recognize: courtesy in public –especially towards the elderly, families with children, visitors and participants in traditional or cultural activities. In Mexico, people take time to say “Buenos días” to anyone they pass in the street.
[Street] Signs of hope
Like many of us, I worry about the pace of San Miguel’s growth. Each passing weekend seems to bring more vehicles and pedestrians. And yet, in the sixteen years I have lived in San Miguel, the ethical culture of its streets has remained amazingly resilient. It seems that when confronted by our beautiful but challenging streets, new drivers quickly understand and accept the need for patience and courtesy. Even if they are accustomed to driving cultures that favor speed and aggressiveness, in San Miguel they are transformed into more respectful, democratic and conscious citizens. Our streets demand it!