Beauty in Chaos – Bangalore Traffic

When I first returned from a Western country (a few years ago), I went through the same process as most other people… I was aghast seeing people driving so haphazardly as if I was seeing it for the first time in my life. Everybody seemed to be suffering from sheer madness and desperation to get wherever they wanted to go! I felt that riding my scooter to work was next to suicide and had decided to migrate to a Western country asap since I was under the impression that I surely deserved a better quality of life than this!

Anyway something compelled me to stay on, I dont know what exactly, I guess I can never pinpoint it to one reason (though not any idealistic patriotism). Over time I came to some conclusions (based on usual Indian driving scenes witnessed every day, not any extreme rash drivers causing accidents).

At first glance, there is total chaos on the streets. But if you look at it with a quiet mind, some amazing things reveal themselves. The very first miracle is that nobody is having an accident even though many situations look to an outsider, esp a foreigner, that vehicles are surelygoing to collide.

People cross the streets with a calm attitude, though vehicles are zipping around them. Even vehicles see the pedestrians standing in the middle of the street, and unhesitantly bypass them. [If such a thing were to happen in UK, people will just not know how to handle it at all. They will surely just collide, or swere off straight into a footpath or a tree]. But here people just move on. I wondered how it was possible, was it just a matter of getting used to it or was it that everybody was blessed with some kind of brilliant reflexes?

Once I was once standing on the pedestrian overbridge near Majestic and looking at the crowd of traffic below. The road was jam packed with vehicles all moving at an average pace, and still people were crossing it. Any random 10 minutes footage of the vehicles and pedestrians moving in perpendicular directions in the same space would’ve probably qualified for “Worlds most amazing videos”. I wondered if Hollywood could possibly reenact such a scene – it seemed to be a flawless choreography !

After having driven a scooter for well over a decade I have come to one conclusion. That a fundamental concept behind surviving on Indian roads is communication.

This communication is in the form of indicators, honks, a flicker of brake lights, a slight turn of the front wheel, vague gestures some which are supposedly hand signals, a slight tilt of the head or a flick of the wrist saying “you go ahead” or “wait a sec”,  a glance at each others eyes, facial expression… these things are so subtle that we take them for granted. Yet I find them incredibly beautiful , I have never seen such delicate communication in any other country’s traffic (based on what little I have seen of the rest of the world).

With the example of pedestrians, when one is driving and sees a person crossing the road, the eyes of the driver and the pedestrian meet, both of them estimate each other’s speed and direction and most importantly – intention – all in a split second. The driver “senses ” that the person is going to walk ahead, he turns slightly and drives on passing the person from behind. Or he senses the person is stopping, he turns  slightly in the other direction and drives on passing the person  from the front.

Wrt driving itself: There is a certain “flow ” of traffic on the streets, and a new vehicle which enters the street and joins the traffic kind of just merges with this flow. Understanding this flow means driving like you are playing chess… guessing the intent of every person around you in advance. With more and more practice, this becomes second nature, no extra effort is needed. It becomes part of driving itself just like you dont need to “think” to release the clutch or  change a gear. And driving this way atleast for me has meant that it is the safest way. One aspect of driving this way in a highly aware state… attentively observing every person/vehicle all around you, is that sudden acceleration and braking is virtually eliminated. It becomes a very very smooth drive.

Accidents (or even close encounters – ‘almost’ accidents which I personally regard as bad as an accident) happen when either one or more of the concerned parties misses out on this communication, or breaks out of the flow. This usually happens when the intent is too  random beyond what people around can guess, sudden braking, sudden turns… etc. This especially happens when a person panics, or is indecisive, or is extremely inconsiderate (actually there are fewer inconsiderate people than we think).

Needless to say, none of what I have written implies that we should disregard traffic rules, etc. Its merely one possible perspective of the situation. Till the day comes when laws are strictly enforced, hopefully this perspective will help in safer and more peaceful driving.

So to summarize:

  • Before doing anything (turning/stopping, etc), let people around you know in some way.
  • Sense what other people are going to do, not just depending on their explicit signals, but on more subtle ones. For eg, an auto going slowly wanting to stop: If you are lucky, he might care to stick a finger out  for a fleeting moment to indicate his intention. At other times, the very presence of a pedestrian standing idly on the pavement could imply that he is going to stop suddenly. This is just one example, there are infinite others and can never be formulated, because they are entirely situation dependent.

Wish you a safe drive! 🙂

29 Responses to “Beauty in Chaos – Bangalore Traffic”

  1. Sanjay Mysoremutt » Blog Archive » communication in ants Says:

    […] onization with the whole system. And now that I mention it, maybe its vaguely similar to traffic in Bangalore as well. Posted in science | By msan […]

  2. kiru Says:

    dear sir,
    since,i am going for dl test.i need ur guidance.
    i want to know about traffic rules.specially,i want to know about hand signals.

  3. msanjay Says:

    Dear Kiru, you may want to go through the excellent driving manual by Rajeev Nanda available at this link:
    http://www.karnataka.com/driving-manual/

    All the best for your DL test! 🙂

  4. Sanjay Mysoremutt ಸಂಜಯ » Blog Archive » good bad and ugly about bangalore Says:

    […] etterment of roads. Go ahead and adopt a pothole in your street or locality. See also: Beauty in Chaos – Bangalore Traffic noise and its consequences Another […]

  5. msanjay Says:

    Found an old email containing a link that Harikrishna Varma had sent as a reply to my mail:

    Roads gone wild: No street signs. No crosswalks. No accidents. Surprise: Making driving seem more dangerous could make it safer.

    Monderman is one of the leaders of a new breed of traffic engineer – equal parts urban designer, social scientist, civil engineer, and psychologist. The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.

    The article was really surprising, that they do so much of research to come down to something that exists naturally if left to itself! 🙂

  6. msanjay Says:

    Comment on Nipun’s entry Lessons From Indian Traffic:

    I already loved India 🙂 but there are some posts out here that really developed a deeper appreciation of it. I recently remembered another post related to the current one.

    ———–
    Since we don’t know the way, we have to ask for directions every two minutes. Instead of mapquest-dot-com, India relies on human beings. That’s bad in some ways, that’s inefficient in certain other ways, but it’s heartwarming in few very important ways.

    ~ Nipun’s Blog: A Hundred Rupee Note

    —————-

    This esp applies in traffic. I’ve always been the butt of jokes of my friends for having a pretty hopeless sense of direction, I’m more or less like the Dirk Gently character in the book Holistic Detective Agency (Douglas Adams) 😉 And though I’ve made efforts to become independent of it, I’ve still got lost countless number of times and really appreciated the fantastic timely help I’ve got from people – wherever in India I’ve travelled. Its pretty much like that king who keeps turning up in Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist. And esp in Bangalore, auto-rickshaw drivers are the best bet to give you the optimal sure-shot route to your destination!

  7. Mridula Says:

    Never thought about it like this!

  8. Shruthi Says:

    Sanjay, this is an excellent post!

  9. msanjay Says:

    Thanks Shruthi, Mridula.

    Well though this written a few years ago, looking back I feel the strength of this understanding has only increased. The strange thing is though I see people honking furiously and ripping past me, I drive by these principles – weaving through the traffic with an effortless ease, with minimal honking, and find to my surprise I’ve overtaken the guy who had ripped past me earlier 😀 Very rarely anyone swears at me, and at times when someone is offensive, I joke with them if I get the opportunity to stop by them later at a Stop traffic light, but more or less convey the point of their negligience.

    Sometimes stopping and allowing people to pass by really catches them by surprise – at times they’ve stared at me in disbelief and gesturing to them with a smile generates a genuine smile from them! 🙂

    All this makes driving mostly enjoyable, instead of a stressful nightmare which it seems to be for most people.

  10. msanjay Says:

    Recently was forwarded this email again, which had prompted me to write the above article! 🙂

    ———-

    This hilarious article was written by a Dutchman who spent two years in Bangalore, India, as a visiting expert. A little long article but worth reading it!!!

    Driving in Bangalore / India

    For the benefit of every Tom, Dick and Harry visiting India and daring to drive on Indian roads, I am offering a few hints for survival. They are applicable to every place in India except Bihar, where life outside a vehicle is only marginally safer.

    Indian road rules broadly operate within the domain of karma where you do your best, and leave the results to your insurance company. The hints are as follows: Do we drive on the left or right of the road?

    The answer is “both”. Basically you start on the left of the road, unless it is occupied. In that case, go to the right, unless that is also occupied. Then proceed by occupying the next available gap, as in chess. Just trust your instincts, ascertain the direction, and proceed. Adherence to road rules leads to much misery and occasional fatality. Most drivers don’t drive, but just aim their vehicles in the generally intended direction.

    Don’t you get discouraged or underestimate yourself except for a belief in reincarnation; the other drivers are not in any better position. Don’t stop at pedestrian crossings just because some fool wants to cross the road. You may do so only if you enjoy being bumped in the back.

    Pedestrians have been strictly instructed to cross only when traffic is moving slowly or has come to a dead stop because some minister is in town. Still some idiot may try to wade across, but then, let us not talk ill of the dead.

    Blowing your horn is not a sign of protest as in some countries. We horn to express joy, resentment, frustration, romance and bare lust (two brisk blasts),or just mobilize a dozing cow in the middle of the bazaar. Keep informative books in the glove compartment. You may read them during traffic jams, while awaiting the chief minister’s motorcade, or waiting for the rainwater to recede when over ground traffic meets underground drainage.

    Occasionally you might see what looks like a UFO with blinking colored lights and weird sounds emanating from within. This is an illuminated bus, full of happy pilgrims singing bhajans. These pilgrims go at breakneck speed, seeking contact with the Almighty, often meeting with success.

    Auto Rickshaw (Baby Taxi): The result of a collision between a rickshaw and an automobile, this three-wheeled vehicle works on an external combustion engine that runs on a mixture of kerosene oil and creosote. This triangular vehicle carries iron rods, gas cylinders or passengers three times its weight and dimension, at an unspecified fare. After careful geometric calculations, children are folded and packed into these auto rickshaws until some children in the periphery are not in contact with the vehicle at all. Then their school bags are pushed into the microscopic gaps all round so those minor collisions with other vehicles on the road cause no permanent damage. Of course, the peripheral children are charged half the fare and also learn Newton’s laws of motion en route to school. Auto-rickshaw drivers follow the road rules depicted in the film Ben Hur, and are licensed to irritate.

    Mopeds: The moped looks like an oil tin on wheels and makes noise like an electric shaver. It runs 30 miles on a teaspoon of petrol and travels at break-bottom speed. As the sides of the road are too rough for a ride, the moped drivers tend to drive in the middle of the road; they would rather drive under heavier vehicles instead of around them and are often “mopped” off the tarmac.

    Leaning Tower of Passes: Most bus passengers are given free passes and during rush hours, there is absolute mayhem. There are passengers hanging off other passengers, who in turn hang off the railings and the overloaded bus leans dangerously, defying laws of gravity but obeying laws of surface tension. As drivers get paid for overload (so many Rupees per kg of passenger), no questions are ever asked. Steer clear of these buses by a width of three passengers.

    One-way Street: These boards are put up by traffic people to add jest in their otherwise drab lives. Don’t stick to the literal meaning and proceed in one direction. In metaphysical terms, it means that you cannot proceed in two directions at once. So drive as you like, in reverse throughout, if you are the fussy type. Least I sound hypercritical, I must add a positive point also. Rash and fast driving in residential areas has been prevented by providing a “speed breaker”; two for each house. This mound, incidentally, covers the water and drainage pipes for that residence and is left untarred for easy identification by the corporation authorities, should they want to recover the pipe for year-end accounting.

    Night driving on Indian roads can be an exhilarating experience for those with the mental make up of Genghis Khan. In a way, it is like playing Russian roulette, because you do not know who amongst the drivers is loaded. What looks like premature dawn on the horizon turns out to be a truck attempting a speed record. On encountering it, just pull partly into the field adjoining the road until the phenomenon passes.

    Our roads do not have shoulders, but occasional boulders. Do not blink your lights expecting reciprocation. The only dim thing in the truck is the driver, and with the peg of illicit arrack (alcohol) he has had at the last stop, his total cerebral functions add up to little more than a naught. Truck drivers are the James Bonds of India, and are licensed to kill. Often you may encounter a single powerful beam of light about six feet above the ground. This is not a super motorbike, but a truck approaching you with a single light on, usually the left one. It could be the right one, but never get too close to investigate. You may prove your point posthumously.

  11. msanjay Says:

    A related link from long ago that I’d meant to add here…

    —-

    Deccan Herald: He freed a city, gave it life – By Asha Krishnaswamy

    A fascinating article… some excerpts here…

    As mayor of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, he dumped a $600 million elevated highway project and developed Transmilenio, a $300 million Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system which carries nearly lakhs of people each day. He motivated private bus operators to run city buses under Transmilenio. Today, Bogotá’s BRT continues to inspire many US cities to improving their bus networks. Penalosa developed more than 1,000 parks, 350 km of bike paths — billed as the best in developing countries — and closed 120-km stretches for seven hours for motor vehicles on Sundays. He ensured that cars were off the roads for two hours during peaks hours, two days a week. He also reclaimed the sidewalks from motorists. A 17-km-long pedestrian street was developed. Forty-five km of Greenway, which was earlier earmarked for an eight-lane highway, was built. There’s more. He constructed 52 new schools, renovated 150 old ones and provided 14,000 computers for schools. The crime rate was down by two-thirds. He planted 1,00,000 saplings, built three big libraries and 100 nurseries for children below five. All this happened in three years.


    Only 20 per cent of the people owned cars and 80 per cent were dependent on public transport. The cars were causing huge traffic jams. For the sake of 20 per cent, the 80 per cent was suffering.

    Unfortunately, the Third World thinks that development means using modern cars.

    We only imposed restrictions on the use of cars on certain days. We widened footpaths by taking space from car roads. The system is so cost-effective and scientific that my successors are continuing the work I initiated. Bogotá’s road network has also pushed up real estate business dramatically.
    ..
    We need to go in for the cheapest transport mode, and definitely, cars cannot solve T-problems. Create a vision of your city and implement it. We live the way we want and a city is only a means. We need parks, footpaths, playgrounds, water and an affordable mode of safe transport to live happily, even if we are poor.

  12. bellur ramakrishna Says:

    sanjay,
    when i wa reading the fwd mail, i felt as if i was really driving. too good a description by a tourist visiting and driving in india!

  13. Abhimanmyu Says:

    Very good article Sanjay. Road traffic situation in major Indian cities is going bad day by day. Myself Abhimanyu and I am the member of site http://www.easydriveforum.com and it will be highly appreciated if you share your views about Indian road traffic in our forum.

  14. msanjay Says:

    Thanks Abhimanyu, that looks like quite a useful site – registered myself there. Hah hah you rame reminds me of Abhimanyu of the Mahabharatha who battles trying to come out of the Chakravyuha… sometimes our traffic junctions become like a Chakravyuya!! :mrgreen:

  15. http://driving-india.blogspot.com Says:

    Almost 10% of the global road traffic accidents occur in India. Much of the world wide web is full of sarcasm & mocking of the indisciplined driving on Indian roads. Unfortunately in since 60 years since independence the authorities have failed to publish a National Highway code. Licences are given to anyone who can demonstrate an ability to use the clutch-accelerator, consequently the motoer driving schools teach just that and no more. Concepts such as – blindspots, principle of MSM, the tyre & tarmac rule, 2 second gap and most improtantly giving way are not known to the average Indian driver.

    This site http://driving-india.blogspot.com/ has been created with the purpose of providing driver education and training to all Indian road users. It is by far the most comprehensive website providing training in defensive driving. Learning simple road habits can make our roads safe and also free up congestion caused by traffic chaos.

    At present 17 driver education videos aimed at changing the driving culture on Indian roads are available. The video are unique in that the footage is real life action from streets of London. We have copied the Western habits: Replaced the dhoti with denim, high rise buildings for Indian cottages, burgers and coke instead of Indian breads and perhaps sugarcane juice. Surely we can copy the Western ways of travelling too.

    To watch the videos, interested readers may visit: http://driving-india.blogspot.com/

    The videos cover the following topics:

    Video 1: Covers the concept of Blind spots
    Video 2: Introduces the principle of Mirrors, Signal and Manoeuvre
    Video 3: At red lights, stop behind the stop line
    Video 4: At red lights there are no free left turns
    Video 5: The Zebra belongs to pedestrians
    Video 6: Tyres and Tarmac (rather than bumper to bumper)
    Video 7: Merging with the Main road
    Video 8: Leaving The Main Road
    Video 9: Never Cut Corners
    Video 10: Show Courtesy on roads
    Video 11: 5 Rules that help deal with Roundabouts
    Video 12: Speed limits, stopping distances, tailgating & 2 seconds rule
    Video 13: Lane discipline and overtaking
    Video 14: Low beam or high beam?
    Video 15: Parallel (reverse parking) made easy
    Video 16: Give the cyclist the respect of a car
    Video 17: Dealing with in-car condensation

    Many thanks

  16. msanjay Says:

    I watched the video 1 today, it was really informative as well as entertaining, and no doubt very very useful thanks a lot! One point I’d like to add about driving in general, and blind spots in particular – are that even when there is a vehicle in the blind spot, it can be sensed by attentive listening while driving. If one is a good listener, one can sense even a cyclist, a reflex action automatically handles one’s driving making it much safer without even any ‘close shaves’ where one gets away just depending on luck! 😕 Meditation is a key to enabling one to listening better 😎

  17. Dr Joglekar Says:

    Hi! Glad you liked the video on blind spots. I hope you like the other 16 videos . I would appreciate further feedback from readers.

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  20. vicky Says:

    i dont know what the f is beautiful abt this…..
    I ve been living here for 10 long years and day after day i’ve seen it only worsen….

    you stand there are the same place today for same duration ,anytime and you’ll surely have your lungs coated with layers of smoke ….
    bangalore certainly needs a total makeover !!!

  21. msanjay Says:

    heh heh heh vicky definitely thers nothing beautiful about the layers of smoke but the article was referring to the way everyone on the road synchronizes with each other 🙂

    Anyway nowadays we see more of standstill jams than any moving traffic esp we will have more of jams once the 1 lakh car sales pick up!

  22. cause and effect | a common man ಸಂಜಯ Says:

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