India Driving

I recently was in five major cities in India. I was struck by driving in India and how different it was than driving in the western countries.

Photos And Observations

They have vehicles in India that I haven’t seen before. This is a “tuk tuk” or auto rickshaw as they are formally called. They are 3 wheelers with a motorcycle in the front and a seat in the back for passengers. Note that the streets are empty because this is a secured area – the India Parliament is in the background – you cannot linger here – and this was about the only light traffic area I saw in India except on some of the major tollways (briefly).

The tuk tuk is yellow and green because that is the color of vehicles that have been converted from regular fuel to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). This was done in order to make the air cleaner in major Indian cities such as Delhi.

One item that makes Indian driving so much more complex than in first world countries is the bewildering array of vehicles on the road from horse and camel drawn carts to bicycles to rickshaws to tuk tuks to scooters and everything else. There are vehicles barreling down the road as fast as they can and those that can’t move hardly at all, sharing the same space.

Scooters and motorcycles were everywhere, mixed in with the cars. We saw a family of five on one scooter, with a child in front, the male driver (with a helmet), another child, his wife (sitting sideways), and then another child on the very back.

In India they don’t use lanes, they just crowd together and cut each other off, honking their horns to signal all the while. To Westerners it looks like chaos but it obviously works in that an entire country is getting where they want to go. I heard of a campaign called “Lane Driving is Sane Driving” trying to change behavior but I could see no evidence of it at hand.

It wasn’t the rule, but I did see many people on top of, hanging out the rear of, or riding along the running board on cars and buses and trucks. Sometimes these vehicles get going pretty fast and hard stops seem common in India with all the traffic so I don’t know how people hold on but apparently they do.

The trucks were often decorated, especially since it was Dawali season. They rarely seemed to have the traditional “18 wheeler” trucks that we use in the states.

Infrastructure And Roads

When you hear an antecdotal story about a country needing to invest in “infrastructure”, it seems like an abstract concept. When you are there on the ground, it seems more obvious.

We rode on some beautiful multi lane highways in India. We drove on the Yamuna Expressway, which connects Delhi to Agra (a large city by Western standards with the Taj Mahal). This road was relatively empty until we neared Agra and took hours off our trip.

On the other hand, the roads in Bangalore are notoriously woeful. The airport is situated far from the business areas and the roads haven’t caught up yet. Imagine leaving O’Hare or to be fair Indianapolis airport for a size comparison and being on essentially a 2 lane rutted road almost immediately outside the gate packed with local vehicles of all sorts and cows to boot. It took 2+ hours to get to the business district and was only a bit better on the way back.

One insidious effect isn’t just the AGGREGATE TIME of the commute but the STRESS LEVEL of the commute. Living in Chicago for decades with its horrible traffic I am used to commute times that stretch into the hours (especially during snow or rain) but you can at least just sit there and listen to the radio or talk on your phone. In India, however, every second of the drive you need to jockey forward for a position on the roads or you will get run over – there is no “relaxing” even for a moment. If I had a 90 minute commute I would get home completely exhausted or probably I’d relent and just pay a damn driver to do it for me.

You can see signs of progress and continuing to build major highways but there is much more to do especially as rising economics means more vehicles of all sorts from scooters to tuk tuks to cars to trucks on the road. It will be difficult for India to catch up to this rising demand for transportation.

Cross posted at LITGM

10 thoughts on “India Driving”

  1. What about railroads ?

    I saw one car in your second photo parked and covered with a white cover. Is this common ?

    Interesting post.

    Obama has pretty much ignored India which is a potential ally. During the Iraq War, there was an Indian-American officer who was a tank platoon commander. He had a blog which was very good and it was widely followed in India. The army eventually made him shut it down.

  2. One thing I have noticed about driving in the 3rd world – is the use of horns. After spending some time in Egypt years ago I came back to the states and couldn’t get over the silence.

  3. Years ago I read an anthropology study that used the average accuracy of public clocks (like bank clocks) and the spontaneous obeying of traffic laws, to predict a country’s relative change in GNP. It was surprisingly accurate.

    The accuracy of the clocks was a predictor of how importantly the local culture treated dealing fairly with strangers. Clocks are really tools for coordinating action with people you can’t constantly communicate with. In poor countries, that means none family. Places with inaccurate clocks were places where people didn’t place much importance on meeting up with strangers or non-family. They didn’t care about the accuracy of the time because if they bumped into someone they knew on the way or a family member showed up, they’d stop to chat or eat, valuing the relationship with the relative above the one with the scheduled meeting.

    Likewise, spontaneous obeying of the traffic laws indicate a society in which people will readily cooperate with strangers because driving is basically just that. In countries with chaotic traffic, people see themselves as being in a mass of strangers to whom they owe little consideration and must assume they feel the same way in return.

    Traffic in India and similar countries is bad because people see driving as almost all competition and with little to no cooperation. China used to be just like that before the communist imposed brutal top down order. When the communist fall they will probably revert. In places like America, Germany or Japan and similar countries, people spontaneously cooperate in driving so the traffic and other affairs. Tellingly, in America there are significant regional differences in driving cooperation and big cities have more chaotic traffic than small towns even when measured on a per capita basis.

    Culture matters. A book I read a few years ago said it took a company in India 11 days to ship move a truck of good something like 600 miles owing to checkpoints, corruption and traffic jams. India’s standard of living would take a huge leap upward if they did nothing else to all drive cooperatively.

  4. Interesting angle Shannon and one I hadn’t considered. Consider Cairo – heck I has there in 1983 – but 10 million give or take a few million (they don’t really know – and that was 29 years ago) – very few traffic lights – donkey carts, taxis, buses, old rikkedy trucks, and constant…honking. It is, as you say, everyone for himself.

    On cooperation I remember driving in Berlin – letting someone turn into the road from a parking lot – and always got a look of grateful surprise. California, for all its problems has mainly polite drivers.

    I remember one sociologist saying one reason for their (Germany’s) unlimited speeds on the Autobahn (getting fewer and fewer due to congestion) – but it is a “safety valve’ for very structured and regulated lives.

    Truth or BS? Just remembering what to me was interesting.

    Interesting about the clocks – while all first world countries view punctuality as a requirement – I spent most of my travel on trains in Germany and when these old clocks – with the minute hand suddenly clicking to the new minute – the conductor would blow his whistle and you know they were off – whether you were running trying to catch it or not.

    I suspect Italy would be a bit different. But all fall into what I would call “punctual” (that study in itself would be interesting – at one point – + or – – would different people – or nationalities consider to be “not” punctual – falling into rude?

  5. Probably partly culture — high/low trust — and partly the simple fact that people are more accountable in small towns/villages because they are easier to ID.

  6. }}}} In India they don’t use lanes, they just crowd together and cut each other off

    So it’s like driving in Boston, then…

  7. With regards to polite driving habits, one thing that drives me batshit bonkers is the notion that being polite to one person is good when it involves being rude to everyone behind you.

    The time to let someone in is when the light ahead is ALREADY red, not when it’s green. By doing so when it’s green you’re generally causing two people to not make the light, as the driver and the “allowee” take several seconds to ack each others’ intent.

    Again: Not that one should not allow people INTO your lane — just that the time to do it is when the light ahead is RED, not GREEN.

    Then there’s the morons who leave a 200 yard head start to the car in front of them… I don’t hesitate to pass them in an adjacent lane and then cut in front of them, anytime it’s vaguely legal. The whole line should start at the same instant, just accelerate slower than the car in front of you, which will cause the separation to increase proportionally with the speed you’re each doing, at a safe rate of distance… This whole “wait, then start” crap inevitably makes 3-5 cars not make it through a given light cycle.

  8. As far as railroads, I didn’t talk about them not because they aren’t interesting but because I didn’t see them much in India. I did see a public transport overhead train in Delhi which looked new.

    I think that the driving style isn’t rude in India, it does work, and it is far different than what we use in the West. I didn’t even talk about all the people driving the wrong direction on the street and turning around in the median.

    My guess is that their roads were ALWAYS sub standard and filled with jalopies and animal powered carts and scooters and the only way to get around was to honk and for everyone to push ahead as much as they could. The “concept” of a two lane highway only makes sense if:

    – everyone can go the same speed
    – you can get on and off at intersections without having to double back
    – you aren’t crossing the median
    – you don’t have cows, people, etc… in the highway

    In India, for the most part, you don’t have any of the above, so everyone drives the way that they do. I can see a glimmer of change on the large highways, where they are starting to ban slower vehicles (they can do this for a toll).

    I don’t think that India was very connected for trade. Now they are getting more connected for trade and the wheels are falling off so to speak on this plan. They are making investments in roads you can see it everywhere but it is hard to invest in place and in parallel.

  9. Welcome to my nightmare.
    I’ve been talking about these traffic conditions since having moved to Bangalore 8 years back; have written newspapers, posted articles online, no response beyond indignant, brick lidded girl slaps, “Well if ya don’t like it” translating “go back to where” etc.
    After having witnessed a child and elderly woman run over on local roads, and then eventually having been run over myself while trying to *carefully* cross a street, advice I’d offer any westerner coming to India, don’t even think about getting behind the wheel.

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