Under my byline

Highway low

Posted in Architecture/Design, Living by Rrishi on 13 January 2010

BS blog 12

A week or two ago I had the misfortune to be driving home from deepest Gurgaon to Delhi near midnight, through a thick fog, on the national highway. This national highway, unlike most other NHs in India, is a Herculean carpet of Tarmac and concrete laid across the landscape. Riding it at speed is like surfing the spine of a colossal dinosaur, as one rise and falls on the flyovers and flat stretches.

It’s monstrous in another way, too: its scale appears to addle the minds of drivers, who react to its inhuman size by trying to shrink it. This they do by driving very fast and swinging between the lanes as if there weren’t any. They also maintain, on this interstate highway, the driving behaviour typical of a crowded city street, sliding past each other with inches to spare, shouldering one another aside and tailgating freely.

On that foggy night when I was driving home, it was business as usual on the highway. Through an obstacle course of inadequately lit articulated trucks the faster two- and four-wheelers swerved at 100 kmh with, incongruously, their hazard lights flashing through the murk. It was pure torture. Impossible to maintain a steady, sane speed in one’s chosen lane.

To generalise: there are basic problems with what roads we do have and the way we use them. One is that the road system in Delhi is not planned as a network, holistically, which means that there will always be inefficiencies and points of accumulation. Another is that what roads do exist are not really designed at all: more often than not they are just flat stretches with dotted lines drawn down the middle. A third is that what locations and services a road feeds are usually not integrated sensibly with the road and its traffic flow: think of stupidly sited entry and exit points, large buildings opening onto tiny streets, and broad avenues through underpopulated bureaucratic-ministerial neighbourhoods. A fourth, that traffic flow is not well understood, which makes every rush hour many times worse than it ought to be. Fifth, and really this is the worst problem of all: our drivers don’t respect any rules — of etiquette, law or common sense. The only rule that matters is pehle main.

Three are planning failures, the fourth implicates the traffic police, and of the fifth we citizen drivers are guilty.

Sadly, the surest solution that occurs is stern enforcement: cameras, fines, imprisonment and more (and better, and less corrupt) cops. In an unfair society like ours, tracking offences is a job best left to status-neutral technology. When your license plate or individual car radio ID tag, let’s say, is caught by camera or sensor while you’re doing something wrong on the road, that’s it, no argument, you face the applicable penalty. All this is an anti-humanistic solution, which infantilises us citizens. But until we migrate at last to public transport (peace of mind!) we’re ready to be treated as juvenile delinquents.

(More information about the photograph above, by V Malik, is available here. As a blog on the Business Standard website, this rant raised some responses, which you can see here.)

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