Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Chennai and Traffic

As years roll down in this hot and dusty city, the sight of traffic congestion is an unchanging one. Though vehicular volume is on the rise and is part-contributor to congestion, people who have lived in this town know that traffic congestion is not new. As early as the eighties (and as early as the sixties from occasional reports I have read), traffic congestion is a given fact. Both from inference and from direct observation, the traffic situation is caused by more than the count of vehicles plying. It is my take that this situation can be improved just by a change in behavior of the road-users - pedestrians and drivers alike. With the number of vehicles to roll out on the roads only increasing, and with some break through changes (Tata Nano etc), limited infrastructure all coming together, we may be caught in a terrible mess if we drive around like we're the only one on road. If you've been outside India to US, Europe etc, we may shrug off the smooth flow of traffic there ascribing it to infrastructure. It is partly true - what goes unnoticed and taken for granted is the road discipline of the users. This is more or less imbibed in their systems now. I wanted to list some causes I have observed as a road-user in Chennai. I am sure this will be a recurring aspect in other metros as well (Hyderabad for example was very similar).

1) Impatience:
Somehow, this seems to be a very common factor among every road user in this city - and if I must point out one fundamental aspect that this different across the US and India, this must be it. Infrastructure will come only second. We motorists are an impatient lot. The moment we stop at a signal, we are not prepared to wait. Even as the signal is on red, vehicles will start advancing threateningly forward as if this gesture will turn the signal to green.

i) Part of the reason I think is the way we are brought up. We do not know how to wait.
ii) Another reason is a vicious cycle. The way we have made the situation now - motorists know that driving for oneself is the only way to reach wherever they are going, for every one is going to do the same thing. If you wait - you wait forever.

2) Having the common good in mind:
Are we asking for too much? :)
Think about these scenarios:
i) A bus stops right in the middle of the road keeping people behind waiting. The bus could have easily moved left and picked up people giving clearance for other vehicles to flow through.
ii) At an intersection, leaving space for vehicles from a different direction, just in case the signal changes

These are just a few examples. But implementing this requires a change in the way we function. This change can be brought about by awareness campaigns. These work! I've seen several such campaigns for other aspects - HIV, PGH - which bring good focus, if not change. This is the first step.

Anyway, the above two are general causes. The following are specific situations where change is possible.

3) Unmanned intersections:
This is a road-user's nightmare. What typically happens is that vehicles from all directions try to go their way and get caught right in the middle. This situation can be easily remedied if each vehicle goes about in a round robin fashion and others wait meanwhile. In the US, I've seen this work beautifully even in very large intersections. A flashing red light across all directions indicates to the drivers that they must move in a round-robin fashion. For some one from India, this sight is a joy to watch. Other smaller roads have stop signs which produces the same effect.
Why doesn't this happen here? "Each one to oneself"

4) Travel Left
A major problem in big highways. Example - NH 45 (Chennai->Trichy). The roads are beautiful and speeds of 100 kmph can be attained consistently. Only if slower moving vehicles keep left for higher speed vehicles to move right. Again, in the US, this is a given fact. Vehicles keep right (opposite side there) unless they need to pass (overtake). In some cases on NH 45, I've seen buses running in parallel and people engaging in conversation across the buses (Yes! National Highway connecting two major cities - believe it!) These areas are also a nightmare for two wheeler users because of rash driving.
A simple disciplinary change can bring about a major transformation!

5) (No) Honk
Add to traffic congestion, noise congestion. We people have a wrong idea that honking makes the person in front disappear. What must be a simple alerting fact becomes an expression of irritation due to impatience. Several times, people needlessly honk knowing very well that the vehicle in front cannot move. We can again take a leaf out of the US traffic rule book. People don't honk unless needed. In fact, being honked at offends people there. We may require honking more frequently here, but we don't need to drive with our finger on the horn!

6) Stop at red
Hmmmm! Interesting idea.

7) Travel on your side of road
Hmmmm! Another interesting idea. So you're not supposed to travel on the opposite side? I assumed that if that is the case, there would be barricades in the middle.

8) If you're turning right, stay on the right side of the road
This will help vehicles moving straight ahead. Though for current situations, having a "straight-only" signal doesn't make sense when there is a right turn possible as well. I've noticed only "straight and right" works.

9) Plant more trees
:) :)
Sorry couldn't resist! (Click on the hyperlink)
Though it is not going to help with the congestion, it will definitely help with the pollution. Seriously, one idea I keep having is to plant trees right in the middle of the road as a long term solution. Trees can serve as a barricade instead of concrete barricades!

These are enough! These changes will improve the traffic situation by 50%+ (gut feel). This in itself a major change - without any infrastructure improvements. For, even with amazing infrastructure, we don't have the consciousness to use it responsibly or efficiently.

Any other common-sense approaches that can contribute to improvement of traffic situations?

3 comments:

Muthuveer Somanathan said...

People in US are no more disciplined than people in India. I think the real reason behind people in US following traffic rules is that the law is enforced more strictly with severe penalties (ranging from fines for simple traffic violations like speeding to jail time and suspension of driving privileges for more serious violations like DUI/DWI; skyrocketing insurance premiums for even the slightest of mistakes etc). I don't think the law enforcement in India is as merciless/ruthless as it is in US which encourages people to bypass the law. If the state begins to clamp down traffic offenders with an iron fist, I am sure the driving practices you had mentioned would be a thing of the past. My 2 cents on the issue:-)

Deepak said...

Muthu,
Hey! Long time :). BTW, are you in Seattle now?

I cannot agree US folks are less disciplined. It probably started as iron handed law systems, but I have seen that they are disciplined even when there is no one to monitor them. It is in their systems. Folks from India follow rules there - that may be because of the law! :)

But the solution is what you said. Uncompromising enforcement of existing laws.

I think another cause is education of rules and responsibilities. There, to get your license, you need to go through the exam which cannot be bypassed.

Muthuveer Somanathan said...

People in US are no more disciplined than people in India. I think the real reason behind people in US following traffic rules is that the law is enforced more strictly with severe penalties (ranging from fines for simple traffic violations like speeding to jail time and suspension of driving privileges for more serious violations like DUI/DWI; skyrocketing insurance premiums for even the slightest of mistakes etc). I don't think the law enforcement in India is as merciless/ruthless as it is in US which encourages people to bypass the law. If the state begins to clamp down traffic offenders with an iron fist, I am sure the driving practices you had mentioned would be a thing of the past. My 2 cents on the issue:-)

 
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