We walked out the door to our quaint little basement AirBnB apartment to a sunny day and gorgeous blue skies, to one of the main streets of Cuenca, Ecuador, Remigio Crespo. From the crisp, clean air of the apartment, we waded into a cloud of fumes, from diesel buses, two-cycle motorcycles, and cars. We were enveloped in the smoke, fumes, and the noise of traffic.
Welcome to Cuenca, a city of beautiful people, amazing architecture, diesel fumes, and mad dog drivers!
To be clear, this envelope of respiratory toxins is mostly found on the main avenues of Cuenca, where the buses, taxis, cars, and motorcycles roll by in abundance. Also, know that a great majority of cars here have diesel engines. All of the city buses do. The quiet side streets are a refuge from all of this, but not a safe refuge. The streets are narrow and regardless of whether it is a neighborhood or business area, vehicles fly down them at racetrack speeds with total disregard
for anyone who tries to cross them. Using the crosswalk offers no protection, but rather a honking horn to get your ass out of the way before you’re hit. Women and children, old men, young men, are all ignored by relentless streams of rapidly moving cars and trucks. Many times I stepped off the curb thinking I had enough time to cross, only to be barreled down on by a fast moving vehicle who from my perspective, had no plan to slow down to avoid hitting me. My survival crossing that road was purely up to me.
Cuencanos are beautiful, friendly people until they get into a vehicle. Then they’re like the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of driving. Drivers take precedent over walkers, everywhere.
We were being taken to the town of Baños by taxi when a family tried to cross the road in their local neighborhood. It was a mother, father, and their daughter. The father made it across with a jaunt. The mother and daughter were stopped by the oncoming speed of our taxi, which didn’t even attempt to allow them to cross safely. The street was also narrow and he narrowly missed hitting them, never slowing even when he got close. Another taxi driver we were riding with was tailgating a scooter driven by a father with his small daughter on the back. He was riding so close, threatening their lives, that I was ready to put my foot on his brake. He got no tip.
I just read a story of a man that’s in a coma in the hospital after being hit by a taxi driver and thrown off his bike. The taxi driver never stopped. I’ve been told that some action is being taken after another elderly man was hit by a car crossing the road. He lived to tell the story and take action to fix the problem. The taxi drivers seem to only slow down or stop only when they are just about to hit you.
The city is not ignoring this problem. One thing they are experimenting with is 3D crosswalks. These are wild. The crosswalk bars look like they are suspended in mid-air so to a car, it looks like you are going to hit something solid in the road. There are other things being experimented with also, so the city is well aware of the problem and is taking some action.
Vehicle exhaust, traffic, fast-moving cars, and uncaring drivers, are all part of everyday life in busy Cuenca. Step away from all the noise and traffic to a local cafe, restaurant, or local hangout, and you will meet some of the nicest, friendliest people in the world, always willing to be helpful. The people we pass on the sidewalks are the same, helpful and friendly. I’m not even sure the people in the vehicles are the same people!
This is city life in Cuenca. I don’t have a lot of experience with city traffic but in those I have been in, the drivers are courteous enough to give way to people on foot, the people who are out in the elements, sensitive too and not contributing to a polluted environment.
After a few hours of walking the streets of Cuenca, I had to go back to the apartment, away from the traffic to give my taxed lungs a breather. I could feel diesel fumes inside me. That evening I had respiratory issues, and I am a healthy guy. I will note that Sundays, the streets are much quieter because most of the businesses are closed.
I know the city of Cuenca is working on getting rid of the diesel fumes with the introduction of electric buses and a new tram (tranvia). As of this writing, there is also a new provision calling for the replacement of most of the old buses with new ones meeting new pollution standards, within the next 21 months. That means the replacement of 25 buses a month once the agreement is signed. The 3D crosswalks should help slow down drivers along with other methods being considered.
Cuenca is a beautiful city, a friendly city, but not a peaceful one when it comes to traffic. There is a war going on between drivers and pedestrians. Maybe that’s just the way it is and will always be, but everyone would benefit with a change.