My thoughts on Indian traffic

Suppose that you’re driving down a four lane, non-divided suburban street in the USA, with a sidewalk on each side. In decreasing order of frequency, you’d expect to encounter:
– cars
– trucks
– buses
– pedestrians
– motorcycles
– bicycles

In India, the corresponding list would be something like:
– bicycles
– pedestrians (with or without pushcarts)
– motor scooters
– motorcycles (with up to four people on board)
– ultrasmall cars
– auto-rickshaws (passenger and goods versions)
– trucks (huge slab-sided things)
– regular cars
– buses
– cows
– luxury/sports cars
– ox-carts
– goats (in herds)

In the USA, the different types of traffic would be logically segregated: pedestrians on the sidewalk, slower vehicles in the right-most lane, and so forth. Furthermore traffic tends to keep to the right, only crossing the centre line for occasional overtaking.

In India, approaching vehicles keep left when passing each other. That’s pretty much the only rule. Any of the types of traffic listed above may be encountered anywhere on the road, including the sidewalk. “Lanes” are a polite fiction, an occasional decoration on the tarmac; road signs are everywhere; traffic lights are so rare that they actually seem to command respect, possibly because they’re such exotic creatures. Traffic may be moving at any speed from zero to 50 MPH – and occasionally in reverse! – in any “lane”. The sidewalk is simply another space to be occupied by any vehicle, and pedestrians may be encountered anywhere – even in the fast lane of a divided intercity highway. Overtaking takes place on either side; if space is limited, the horn is used incessantly until the gap opens up. At an intersection, nobody stops: they just proceed straight into the flow and somehow they’re absorbed (usually with more horn blasts).

[Amusing touch: Trucks and auto-rickshaws have crudely painted signs on the back, saying “HORN PLEASE”.]

And it all works. Dammit, the traffic in Pune works better than the traffic in Boston, or San Francisco. Even though it looks chaotic, it keeps flowing almost all the time. (On those rare moments when it doesn’t, volunteers step up to direct traffic and sort out the mess.)

Why does it work? There seem to be two related reasons. First, there is no prescribed “right of way”. You can’t assume, or insist on your right of way where none exists. All interactions – overtaking, merging, giving way to crossing traffic – seem to be based on instantaneous negotiations between the various parties, with the “body language” of the vehicles conveying the necessary cues.

The second reason is that nobody pushes 100%. Everybody seems to drive at about 60% intensity. That may seem odd, when you see vehicles packing into a space with scant inches between them, but I think it’s true. When in doubt, yield – if it’s the wrong decision, you’ll be able to make it up later. If you lose a merge, don’t fight it, relax – even if that opens space for someone else. And there’s a rhythm to it, a kind of balancing that reminds me of the women walking by with bundles of goods on their heads. When a car comes up to pass a bicycle, the rider sways out of the way, just enough to allow the car to pass. It’s not a manoeuvre, it’s a dance step. It’s what the AI guys call “swarm intelligence” of a very high order: self-organization rather than rules-based.

And of course at night it gets even crazier, because half the vehicles have no, or defective, lights. But it still works.

[Another amusing touch. High-end cars have door mirrors that fold out of the way at the touch of a button. When the spacing between vehicles is measured in a few inches, this is more than a luxury.]

What does it feel like? This morning as I was being driven to Pune airport, there was one perfect moment when the car I was in was overtaking an auto-rickshaw, which was overtaking a bicycle, which was swerving round a cow. As we did this, a large SUV overtook all of us. Between us, we occupied the entire width of the street, and not far ahead there were two or three “lanes” of traffic approaching us at speed. Somehow it all just flowed together and past.

I can’t imagine driving here myself. I think you’d have to grow up here to learn the music of the street. If you can’t sing it, if you’re not note-perfect, it must be miserable. But watching the performance is totally absorbing – initially frightening, then exhilarating. I guess it could become almost mundane over time, which would be a shame.

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