I spend 3 hours a day on the road. That’s 12.5% of my day gone into clutch and brake. Apart from taking a toll on my general mental health and building my anxiety, spending that kind of time on the road keeps me from doing a lot of other things on a daily basis: more exercise, running errands, being energetic and more productive at work. I drive 40km up and down (Delhi-Noida-Delhi) every day and I’ve admittedly never been more unhappy with the condition of roads in this country. The roads are not the same anymore; 5-10 years ago, I could have covered the same distance in half the amount of time. But things are much different now; I’ve used roads in different parts of the country and I’ve increasingly come to realise that commute is becoming more chaotic by the day.
Sometimes I wonder if we could go back to times when there were kuchcha roads with bullock carts, at least there would be less accidents and anxiety, right? But with 1.3 billion people in this country and 31.6% of those people living in cities, it seems tar and mortar is unavoidable. So, I decided to write down this nostalgic realisation of reality of using roads in 4 different cities in India over the years:
I grew up in Hyderabad, and it was here that I started riding a bike. For as long as I remember, riding a bike in Hyderabad was no easy task, primarily because the city had a general lack of lane discipline. Hyderabad has had its fair share of romance with over-speeding and rash driving; I would credit this to the laid back Nizami air that the city in general exudes – no one leaves to any destination on time, they try to make it up by releasing their feet off the clutch and brake and stomping on the accelerator.
Let’s not even get to the news of under-aged people dying in bike and car accidents that I heard almost every month while growing up: a couple of 12th-grade students from my junior college, an old acquaintance here and another one there, some politician’s son and once former captain of Indian cricket team Azharuddin’s son as well. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to normalise morbidity here, it was just that the frequency of these accidents was so high that I normalised this in my head. The wide roads of the city, in areas such as Banjara Hills, Uppal, ORR, and Necklace Road, instead of helping better commute, had become racing tracks for reckless youth. Using roads in the city got so risky that I had stopped riding here entirely.
However, Hyderabad is a transformed city now. Today, I see a heightened sense of discipline and responsibility in the road users in Hyderabad. Although traffic congestion and the number of vehicles has increased with the ever expanding geography and population of the city, the stricter traffic rules implemented by the current Telangana government ensured that the city became a slightly safer place for road users over the years.
What Works: Existing infrastructure, improved traffic rules and traffic sense
What Doesn’t Work: Improper lane discipline
What Can Change: Cordoning off footpaths.
The minute one thinks of Mumbai, the pain of being stuck in the city’s traffic jams stings in the back. Sixteen years ago, when I first visited Mumbai, I remember being vexed with the amount of time it took to get from one destination to the other. Commute was and still is a major problem in the city. The roads are narrow, and unlike other cities, mostly congested as not many roads lead to a single destination owning to Mumbai’s vertical layout. Add to this the problem of annual flooding during the rainy season and a general lack of infrastructure and road safety concerns.
Mumbai is a maximum city, people talk about the so called “spirit of Mumbai”, but just one trip on Mumbai’s roads can dampen your spirits to no end. So then what sort of “maximum” is it if the infrastructure can’t support its population and the government doesn’t take enough measures to discipline road users here? And what is this “spirit” we are talking about? The general ignorance to follow road signs and block a signal haphazardly doesn’t yell “spirit” to me, at least not the right kind. On such chaotic roads that face perpetual traffic woes, can you imagine the condition of someone walking? Before that, can one even walk on Mumbai’s roads, because where are the footpaths?
Pune, on the other hand, is out to ruin its own well-being by protesting against traffic rules. The city, with all its “best city to live in” tags, is hell bent against wearing helmets. With the highest number of two-wheelers in the country, it is rather weird that the people here vehemently refuse to follow basic rules and are proud of it. Further, the ambitious BRT project is not being used to its full purpose in all places, creating more problems than solutions. The Bus Rapid Transport System, that the city took so long to build, in many places, is used by all sorts of vehicles. Further, the changes it created to the roads in the city have added to the problems of two-wheeler riders. I have myself once rode on to an uneven road divider that I didn’t know existed/ didn’t realise where it had started.
In Mumbai and Pune, the government and political parties, instead of supporting people who are protesting traffic rules, should work at implementing them more strictly and discipling the ever increasing population and road congestion here.
What Works: Strict measures on drunken driving.
What Doesn’t Work: Improper rules and regulations and infrastructure.
What Can Change: Better infrastructure, strict enforcement and following of traffic rules.
Back in 2015, when I first learned how to drive, Delhi’s roads were much more peaceful and calm. When I had first moved to Delhi, my mother bought me a car: not because she was spoiling me, but because she wanted me safe, and having my own vehicle, although is a matter of added expense, helps my mom sleep peacefully at night on days when I’m out late.
Now, here’s a little confession to make: I rode a bike from the time I could acquire a learner’s license, but learning how to drive a car always seemed like a far shot to me. But Delhi threw me in the deep end: I had to learn how to maneuver a four-wheeler if I had to live in this city, that was the rule. When I actually started driving my car, I enjoyed it to no end: broad, mostly empty, and beautiful roads. After having used the roads regularly in other metros such as Mumbai and Hyderabad and in Pune, Delhi’s roads seemed like a walk in the park to me; well at least central and south Delhi’s did.
However, it slowly started getting a little worse by each passing year. First, I quickly realised that everything is not as smooth as it seems; for example, making a trip to Gurgaon at night and witnessing the over-speeding and rash driving on the many lanes of Golf Course Road is inviting quick death. As a woman driver, taking my car to drive alone in Gurugram feels like an adventure outing to me. There are people that over-speed, drive-rashly and even pass unsolicited comments at you. Just the broad roads with hardly any patrolling is a recipe for disasters. Gurugram, to sustain its cosmopolitan, hip and happening image, needs to ensure that people feel safer on its roads- whether its women’s safety or road accident related safety. Better police presence can go a long way to change this.
Next, as I tried wading through a 45-minute-long traffic congestion near IIT-Delhi (the stretch from SDA market to my house that usually used to take me only 15 minutes to cover back in 2016) the other day, I started to wonder what had really changed about the road condition in big cities? Almost all these major cities’ roads are so much worse than what they were around four years ago. What used to be breezy, enjoyable drives earlier have now turned into patience-testing, annoying laboratory exercises.
It then hit me that amidst all the metro constructions and road widenings that these cities are seeing, there is one new player on the streets that might have been contributing to the chaos but no one has really woken up to take notice: app-based cars. While the surge in the number of Ubers and Olas has made transport and connectivity more accessible, they’ve also made it that much more tedious and time-consuming.
A few years ago, cars didn’t arrive at your doorstep on the click of your mobile phone, you had to walk to the metro station/ bus stop/ rickshaw stand or rent a vehicle. Today, the reality and the convenience that comes with it is entirely different. Although there are no proper statistics to prove that app-based cars indeed do increase traffic congestion as there is no cap on the number of cars on the roads, a study by Schaller Consulting says that cab services such as Uber might be responsible for an increase in congestion in New York City; and it might not be wrong to assume the same in the case of India’s metro cities.
It’s not just added number of cars on the roads that are creating the chaos, it is a whole host of issues combined together that are responsible for added congestion and thereby road safety risks on Delhi roads.
What Works: Infrastructure and rule-following.
What Doesn’t Work: Density of vehicles on the road.
What Can Change: Regulation on vehicle number; and checking speed limits in NCR.
There are plenty of problems on Indian roads. In the last ten years or so, our country of 1.3 billion people lost 1.3 million people to road accidents. And you know what, it is high time that we realise that these deaths are mostly avoidable. It’s the responsibility of the government and the people to fix this situation. Stricter traffic rules, better infrastructure, and improving the condition of government buses (and sometimes even educating the drivers of these buses to not drive rashly), and extremely strict implementation and following of these rules can go a long way in managing the traffic epidemic in this country.
We can build metros and bullet trains, but it is imperative to first fix the problem at hand before it’s too late.