Poised in the Muddle

Dr. John Patrick Ojwando
Published: May 2014

Navigating the traffic in Bangalore can be a daunting task. But, seated on a two wheeler at traffic lights or weaving your way in the midst of traffic, one comes across several interesting observations.

To an outsider, the roads in Bangalore and its myriad by lanes present a frenzied tangled mess. In addition, they contend there is little regard for traffic rules or courtesy, barring of course, a few users. But for the residents, especially the daring ones that put their lives on hold to scale them on a regular basis, there is more to the roads than just the revving and halting of vehicular traffic.

The first noticeable features are the modes employed to shuttle from one end of the city to the other. From high end swanky fuel guzzlers such as Audis, Jaguars, Benzs and BMWs to the ‘not so hip’ tiny cars, a burgeoning public transport comprising auto rickshaws, the smoke – spewing metal contraptions dangling on three –wheels to the much-maligned but sought after state -owned buses, pedestrians straying on the road because of several encroachments by those laying cables to vendors ferrying goods with innovative carriages propelled by four- legged creatures, the roads present a heterogeneous tableaux. The scenes, stemming from these movements can be exhilarating or downright irritating, depending on which side of the fence you prefer to nestle. Such is the demand on the roads that more often than not vehicular movement is reduced to a crawling pace. It is not uncommon to see commuters whiling away a great chunk of their time in peak traffic even as they make valiant attempts to wriggle out of its all engulfing muddles.

Some of them have perfected the art of survival by rising early to work and delaying the drive back home, a ‘small’ price to pay, they say, for seeking the allure the city flaunts. Others rely on technology to keep abreast with a city on the upward surge. Before venturing out, they tune to FM Radio stations to get traffic updates from the Radio presenters and their regular callers.

Aside, you will find the City Police Department’s digital highway signs that have sprang up at busy traffic intersections offering another welcome resource.

If the initial days of my travels were tagged with the city’s erratic public transport system, I believe the best part of my sojourn is upon me after mustering enough courage to take out a two wheeler. Subsequently, I have recorded fabulous riding hours -adventurous, full of fun and thrill, but yes, downright risky at times.

The first time I took out a scooter on the roads, I had friends egging me on. The closest relationship I had nurtured with a two wheeler prior to this was riding pillion. As I merged with the rest of the traffic on that momentous afternoon, the biggest fear was whether I would survive the chaotic scenes the roads mirror.

Surviving I have but some of these fears have come true. I have had close calls with trucks and BMTC buses, experienced several falls, some self -inflicted and others totally not of my own making.

Of these incidents, one still rankles. There are tales aplenty of the cunning traits of a number of auto rickshaw drivers (a healthy figure) and how they are adept at making quick bucks every time you flag them down. However, nothing in this world had prepared me to deal with their brash ways, especially their attitude towards other road users.

On a ride to an up market locale in the city recently, I got a taste of what lies in store for those who opt to go the two wheeler route. I had brought my scooter to a halt at a traffic intersection. Awaiting my turn to proceed, an auto rickshaw driver in inebriated state came hurtling behind to take advantage of a free left turn that had opened up once those in front had jumped the signal. Without warning, the errant driver bumped onto the rear of my scooter ripping open the rear part leaving me thanking the heavens to have got down unharmed.

Confronted by the onlookers, he was literally on his knees pleading for leniency. Not keen on a formal complaint, I dusted myself and opted to retrace my journey back with a visit to the service workshop weighing heavily on my mind. It was a mistake I would rue.

Having taken a few strides from the scene of the accident, the auto rickshaw driver came behind and crossed my path blocking any further progress.

pqUnknown to me he had gathered a gang of auto rickshaw drivers claiming I had made a huge dent on his auto once he realized those witness to the incident had all but dispersed. Hopelessly outnumbered, I was cornered into parting with money to repair a dent I had not even been the cause of as a verbal duel ensued orchestrating another traffic gridlock. Deep inside, a sense of injustice persisted. It seemed as if lightening had struck twice. The experience offered my first lesson in commuting – when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Perhaps if I had jumped the traffic signal like others before me at the intersection, I would have touched my destination without any hurdles. May be not!

Since then, I have come to the realization that in accident cases where auto rickshaws are involved in the traffic muddle, their drivers claim to be the victims. Woe to you if you are not a local, there is a heavy price to pay. An oft repeated defense of such acts is that outsiders get into unnecessary commotions because ‘they do not understand our traffic ways’. I beg to disagree!

Gold diggers aside, I am always pleasantly intrigued by the way I have managed to stay afloat, wading through the maddening traffic. Earlier, overwhelmed by the spectacles that unfold with each passing day, I would just stand and marvel at the ease in which those on two wheelers went about their task, personal safety being the only concern. “An accident can happen to anyone, whether you are in the safe confines of your car, riding, walking or just standing,” a friend of mine responding to my frequent posers had once retorted.

That may be the case but riding on two wheelers poses several risks, whether on the saddle or pillion. I have been witness to adolescents engage in risky stunts on busy thoroughfares oblivious to the risks they put their lives to and that of the others, motorcyclists taking to the sidewalks to avoid traffic snarls or pedestrians straying on the roads as if vehicles don’t ply on the section of the road they tread.

The main ingredients of Bangalore’s variegated traffic comprise two wheelers, motorbikes and scooters, cars and buses. Of these, the two wheelers and motorbikes offer the most interesting insights. These, considering themselves akin to free birds, move in packs, each trying to outdo the other. At the traffic signals, the riders regroup looking at each other with a mix of loathing and hate as they try to get the best spots on the starting line-up. As the traffic lights turn green, they literally flank the other vehicles on the road and zoom towards their destination giving a short shrift to all lane disciplines, oblivious of the approach of traffic from the opposite direction. In ensuing dash, not a single soul is ready to slow down. And just when you think that a head on collision is on the cards, the fleet of two wheelers part ways. I guess, there is never a moment of silence on the street. I have now got used to the sounds of honks, the deafening roar of engines and plumes of smoke from rickety smoke spewing exhaust pipes.

Many motorcyclists tell stories of their escapades on the city’s motorable routes. Here, there is a hell lot of braking and honking. “Watch out too for the school kids on their bicycles. They often double up two to a bicycle, wobbling all over the place, moving slower than everyone else and that too busy playing pranks on each other to notice other users,” a blogger writes talking of traffic in distant Saigon in Vietnam. The same is applicable here. Also, it is important to keep tabs with the advance of vendors pushing their carts across laden with every imaginable item ranging from vegetables to waste products.

The difficult part however remains the fate of pedestrians. It is baffling that just about every motorist exhibits an uncharacteristic urge to press the throttle. Speed they say thrills but it also kills. In their unbridled enthusiasm to always stay ahead of the pack, motorists show scant regard for the handful of zebra crossings that dot the highways or traffic signals devised to control the flow of vehicular movements. To bring the vehicles to a halt in many cases is not an option many take. The pedestrians answer on the other hand borders on the absurd. It is not uncommon for them to cross the road holding their arms up (akin to traffic police officers) as if beseeching the onrushing traffic to halt.

Surprisingly, some do halt but that does not mitigate the fact that it takes a lot of courage to cross any road because of the stream of motorcycles, buses, trucks and cars. The other way to go about crossing the road is to do it in groups each using the other as a shield. Once you set foot on the road, it is advisable to continue walking and the motorcycles, cars, buses or trucks will then slow or even stop allowing you to complete the arduous task of reaching the other side of the highway.

trafficThe standard practice is for pedestrians to stop for vehicles. But here, vehicles sometimes do stop to give pedestrians the right to passage. Nonetheless, while most of the motorcyclists and drivers are courteous enough to slow down, others just drive through. It will serve you well not to take things for granted if you plan to keep your limbs in place.

In all my observations ever since I became a part of the road, one thing I still find baffling is the reluctance of some of motoring fraternity to use helmets even when they know it could be the difference between keeping and losing their brains. I have seen riders holding their helmets in hand. Others balance them on their heads, and still a good number take pride in their imitations of helmets perfected to help them to stay away from the prying eyes of law enforcers.

Sad, but again, these seem to be ways of commuting, especially in a city where riding can be a scary undertaking for beginners but strangely infectious for those who try!