Lessons From Indian Traffic

Dec 6, 2005

One of my Uncle's American friends once said, "I used to be an athiest. But after having survived Indian streets, I now believe that there must be God!" :)

Indian traffic is, well, Indian traffic. Every intersection has the potential of finding movement in all four directions -- the three wheelers push around the pedestrians and bicyclists, the cars shove their big frames fearlessly through any road block and the scooter and Kinetics use fake truck-horns to get some respect. While busy street corners boast white and beige uniformed traffic police, they are either busy collecting bribes or left wondering when their whistles will be replaced with loud horns so people can actually hear their pleas for order. The rest of India's intersections are left to the mercy of the almighty AutoPilot.

One would imagine that chaos would render the roads useless. But no. Traffic actually flows through, rather efficiently.

In place of long, mechanical lines of robotic machinery, Indian traffic feels more like an art gallery. Every intersection at every signal is a unique formation. Consider what happens when a signal turns red. Loads of cars and trucks and buses attack the front of the line from all kinds of irregular angles; in between them, the rickshaw driver sweeps left and right turns to cut ahead by two feet or sometimes four inches, the bicycle driver boldly squeezes into the gaps in between the three wheelers, and, of course, the enterprising vendor on foot will shuttle his q-tips and Maps of India and other random items from one car window to another.

To top it off, India has the most humane speed breakers -- cows. What no traffic cop can do, a cow can easily do. When the sacred cow feels the inner urge to roam the streets, every moving vehicle has no choice but to hit the brake-pads! :) While the cog-in-the-wheel human is looping indefinitely from one pre-meditated departure and arrival to another, it is the cow that has the last laugh.

It's so comic, it almost feel cosmic. After a while, the comedy of errors dissipates into a subtle understanding of Indian culture.

When big cities like Bangalore tried to Westernize their public space infrastructure in geometrical shapes they could grasp, ie. a single file line, they created lots of traffic jams and required ongoing "road expansion" projects to force many folks out of their generations-old homes. Don't get me wrong. I understand that there has to be some threshold of order for chaos to work; surely, we need good traffic police, ample parking space to combat the rising car sales, ear plugs to cancel the noise of competing horns, :) strategies to mitigate the high death rate in small accidents. Yes yes to all that, but let's not lose our chaos all too soon.

Indian traffic is continuously self-organizing into dynamic optimal behaviors, much like all of Nature. Whether it is animals roaming through the roads or old trees peering through the center of tall buildings, India's natural order is inclusive of all life. And instead of a cookie-cutter, mass-produced, robotic solutions to order traffic, perhaps localized chaos represents the art imbued in the Indian blood.

Roads aren't just meant to get from point A to point B. When the journey is the outcome, every intersection holds a creative joy of something beautiful. That's the Indian culture I see when I drive on the streets.

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