Miracles in Mumbai: The organised chaos of traffic/driving on Mumbai roads

This blog is a number of things: reflection on the research process and on spitting but It is also about travel and cross-cultural observations. This entry is about cross-cultural observation on the Mumbai roads.

It essentially defies logic. Imagine (as do those that analyse traffic flow through computer modelling in the UK) how multiple objects best move through a narrow pipeline and where at different points/intersections in the pipeline new objects join and fight for movement through it. In the UK we drive in straight-lines and new traffic has to join in the one, two or three lanes available. When the road narrows tailbacks occur and traffic can almost stop. Jams are common and they last too long. Yet in Mumbai it feels as though the traffic never stops despite the amount of traffic being far, far greater; that ‘rules’ around lanes and overtaking are virtually absent (overtake either side, switch ‘lanes’ or road position ten times a minute), and everyone aims aggressively for any space that might take you two feet further forward. Visually it is often closer to cattle being herded into gateway than anything related to ordered traffic flow.

At first the rules appear to be absent but they are there: if you have your nose evenly marginally in front (which may be contested to a point) you can keep going, sounding your horn incessantly (but as everyone is doing this incessantly it is not always clear if this has a genuine purpose). In the UK such action leads to raised temperatures but mainly because vying for space like this happens only rarely. In Mumbai it is every second of every minute. Drivers are mostly stoical and I have barely seen one driver shout or even mutter at another but the competition for that space further forward is competed for with vigour at all times. Driving is clearly intense – being a passenger from elsewhere can be both exhilarating and quite worrying, if not frightening. Prior to writing this post I have been taxied around (by both taxi and auto-rickshaw) over four days. It defies logic in part because I genuinely find it difficult to believe that I have not been involved in an accident. I doubt that words can convey what probably really needs to be experienced – it is fast and furious driving – as seen in parts of Portugal or Spain but one hundred fold. It is quite simply a different driving culture. And yet it works (sort of) I am yet to witness an accident yes near misses happen every few seconds. The traffic keeps moving and when it stops it isn’t for 10, 15 or 20 minutes it is for a few minutes ay most. If the same driving was transposed to the UK it would be carnage, straight and simple, here, as I say, it works.

Other related observations are that around 1 in 20 cars/auto-rickshaws drive without lights on at night; cyclists (in mortal danger at the best of times) do not have any lights; children cycle through all of the above (mostly in the day), sometimes two or three hanging off a single bike and pedestrians NONCHALANTLY (really nonchalantly) negotiate traffic literally by millimetres. If you don’t believe any of the above here’s a couple of (probably weak – I can’t be bothered to provide perfect – life is too short, especially in an auto-rickshaw) examples.

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