India's traffic - How do you transport 1.300.000.000 people?

I have waited hours in traffic jam, sat on motorbikes, driven a scooter, and bought a pollution mask. I have bargained for taxi rides and squeezed into Tuk-Tuks. I've slept in busses, eaten in trains, boarded airplanes, and I can cross any road without fear. I think I'm ready to share about India's traffic and transportation. What's (purposefully) absent from this list is local bus and train during rush hour. The chances of death weren't worth it.


Cars, taxis, and bikes

My first day in Bangalore threw me right into the colourful world of India's traffic. We were driving in a big car, and driving a bigger car means two things: (1) You have less space and get stuck in traffic. (2) You have the unofficial right of way with smaller vehicles. In other words, everyone smaller than you is forced to stop when you cross the streets.

Driving in India means driving on the left, evading potholes, and anticipating invisible speed breakers. It also requires knowing the size of your vehicle down to the centimeter. Sitting in a taxi is like a slalom race through narrow gaps of pedestrians, cows, and motorbikes.

Driving in India means sounding your horn at about 10 honks per minute. A European honk is an once-a-week insult to the idiotic behaviour of fellow drivers. An Indian honk is a friendly "hello, just letting you know I'm over here." Honking means communicating where you are, so fellow traffic participants can move aside. And that brings me to another point:

Driving in India means looking out for each other. Or in other words, it means almost running each other over all the time, but never doing so. It would be an exaggeration to call lanes guidelines. In India everyone drives where they want, allowing for maximum utilisation of space. Maybe it's true that Indian driving saves lives by looking out for each other. But what is definitely true is that 146,000 people were killed in 2015:

"Road accidents are common in India, often due to poor driving or badly maintained roads and vehicles. Experts blame poorly designed roads."

Driving in India means practicing patience, especially in bigger cities. Enter the streets on rush hour and 10 km will take an 60 minutes. A lot of Indians are still too poor to own a car, which is why you can see entire families on one motorcycle. But adding a couple million more cars to traffic will not improve traffic.

The famous yellow cabs in Kolkata
The famous yellow cabs in Kolkata

Long-distance public transport

Traffic jams need patience, but so do bad roads. India is an immense country, but because of poor infrastructure it feels even bigger. 450 km easily takes 9 hours, and even though flying has become a lot cheaper, it is still too expensive for many. I feel pity and admiration for the millions who regularly endure 24+ hour journeys.

My own record pales in comparison, but was bad enough: 17 hours for 600 km.

I wedged my body into the seat and got ready for my first overnight bus trip. After we had finally slipped through the traffic jams of the city, a loud bang shook the bus. Flat tire. Everyone stayed very calm, so I did the same. In 1,5 hours the bus chauffeurs and two passengers had fixed the problem and we continued. Suddenly the engine shut off. Again, some people managed to fix the issue. Around 8 am I was delighted to see on Google Maps that our destination was only 150 km away. Delighted until Google Maps indicated it would take 4 hours because of the winding roads of Goan Jungle.

Whenever I arrive at a new station, taxi drivers approach me like hungry vultures. It seems impossible for them to understand that I don't want a taxi, but rather use Ola, the Indian Uber. I have pissed off a lot of taxi and Tuk-Tuk drivers (pissing off people is difficult for me) by ordering an Ola cab literally in front of their nose. But Ola is always cheaper and more comfortable. Sorry!

Trains come in various shapes and classes. Decoding the difference between '2nd class AC' and 'sleeper' is crucial to a comfortable, and dare I say, safe journey. Inside knowledge like this from my Indian friends has saved me a lot of trouble during bus and train travel.


Short-distance public transport

While people sitting on top of trains is mostly a sight of the past, India still offers shocking train experiences. The most notorious happen in the local trains of Mumbai. The size of crowds resemble the infamous Tokyo metro, but since the Mumbai trains have no doors, people literally hold on to dear life. More than ... Indians die each year because they fall off the train, or are hit when crossing the tracks!

A separate chapter could be written about how railway tracks co-exist with daily life. I have witnessed a man taking a poop on the rails, a half-naked man brushing his teeth while crossing, and whole crowds using the tracks to take the ferry. During my first days I was annoyed by the continuous honking of the train. Now I know why it's necessary.


To live in India is to travel

Travelling in India is an everyday part of life. Whether it's a daily 4-hour commute through the metropolitan traffic, packing 7 people into a tiny Tuk-Tuk, or sleeping away in 12-hour bus journeys. It is not uncommon for both the young and elderly to travel a whole night for a 2-day stay. How odd to remember all the times I refused to make the trip from Zaandam to Rotterdam. A comfortable 1,5 hour train ride that passes through five major Dutch cities.

Even a daily 4 km commute to work can take 45 minutes. I look forward to the opportunity of cycling everywhere again, even if that means cycling in the rain. And that doesn't sound too bad either, considering I'm writing this while stuck in a Sri Lankan town due to buckets full of rainfall.

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