The Rules of the Road, Bangalore Edition

If you spend any time in Bangalore/Bengaluru, as I did on a recent work trip, you soon realize that traffic is a common topic of conversation. It’s kind of like weather in Canada.

You also learn that Bangalore has its own rules of the road.

Lanes are a roughly reckoned thing

Traffic on Old Madras Road in BangaloreThe width, boundary and number of lanes on Bangalore roads is a mutable thing. This all changes depending on the driver, conditions and time of day.

On my trip from the airport to the hotel at 1:00 AM, the driver tended to straddle two lanes. At first, my inner monologue made comments about his poor driving, given that there wasn’t traffic to work around (though there was still a surprising amount for 1:00 in the morning). Then I realized the sense of his tactic: by straddling two lanes, he could easily move to either one as needed.

However, what I noticed most days was the reckoning of the number and boundary of lanes, as in ‘I reckon my car, motorbike, auto’ will fit in that gap – voila, a lane appears. It’s like magic.

Drive with intention

This approach to driving means drivers in Bangalore need to demonstrate a bit more chutzpah than your average Canadian driver.

On my way back to the airport, I saw a car where the driver-side mirror was missing. The thought ‘that can’t be good’ passed through my brain. Then I realized it wasn’t necessary given how Bangaloreans drive: you follow your intention – to move right – and if no one honks, you’re good to go. If someone honks, well, then the tussle begins.

Please honk

Horn OK sign from the back of a truckIf a driver lays on the horn in Canada, it usually means one of three things: 1) sorry but you are trying to occupy the space I am in, 2) excuse, do you realize the light of you is green or 3) F@#$%$& jacka$$. That last one I stopped doing a number of years ago, when the fellow I had honk at moved from in front of my car to behind my car and tailed me until it became clear I was leaving the city.

Honking in Bangalore is constant, though I would guess it is common in India at large from the ‘Please Honk’ signs on the backs of trucks. There’s even a Wikipedia article about it. It seems like this idea has crossed over from commercial trucks to driving in general. A lot of the honking I heard seemed to be of the ‘I want to move into the space you’re in’ type or the ‘you don’t have a side mirror so I’m letting you know I’m here’ type. I don’t think I ever heard that angry honking, though I’m sure there was some honking in frustration at spending another hour in traffic that didn’t seem to be moving anywhere.

Measuring distance

One of the rules of the road in Bangalore turns out to be the same as in Canada: measuring distance in time rather than clicks (sorry, kilometres). At first blush, it would seem that the reasons for this are different. However, we might be more similar than we think.

In Canada, measuring distance between A and B in time is used because the distance travelled in kilometres can be so great, and the road so winding, skirting farms, rivers and mountains.

In Bangalore, time is used in large part because of the traffic. However, you also have to contend with those same natural road blocks we have in Canada. The time on a holiday Monday can be very different from rush hour after a deluge of rain.

One day when I was there, instead of going to the usual office 20 minutes from the hotel, we were going to another campus, normally an hour from the first. However, it had rained heavily the night before. Early in the drive, the car comes to a stop and I hear ‘shit’ from my colleague in the front seat. Looking ahead, I see the underpass we’re supposed to take flooded, with a school bus stuck in the middle of the temporary pond. We weren’t going to get through that way. Instead we had to take a detour through former villages, alongside a lake, past farms, all over bumpy roads.

Do the rules work?

I don’t know. The locals seemed to make it work for them. There were a few times I wondered if things would actually move more quickly if the laws were followed rather than the rules of the road. But without trying it, who knows. All I know is that I could never drive in Bangalore. Even as a passenger, there were times when I felt my heart working a little too hard. But I’m amazed at the people who do.

Oh, and Bangalorean traffic controllers are a breed apart, risking life and limb to bring some order to the chaos.

Traffic on Old Madras Road by Kiran Jonnalagadda used under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
Horn OK By Hydkam (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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