Bangalore’s streets exist in a sort of perpetual traffic jam, where there seems to be little attention paid to official rules of the road, but rather some unwritten rules that boil down to this: if you are a centimeter ahead of me, you have right of way.

You really have to experience traffic in Bangalore to appreciate it. The sights, sounds, and smells are a powerful mixture, and sometimes you just have to close your eyes and pray that things will all go safely. (Sometimes you have to close your eyes because of the dust and pollution, too.) Indeed, most vehicles seem to have some token of protection on the front dashboard – usually Ganesh, the elephant god, but sometimes Jesus or an Indian flag. On several autos I have seen a dangling string of chili peppers and a fruit.

In this city of over 6 million people, double what it was about 10 years ago, there are virtually no highways, overpasses, or tunnels, that one might expect to see in a large city – although some are under construction.  The roads are extremely congested, and one spends most of the time stopped.  It is about 10 miles from the main shopping street (M.G. Road) to our apartment, but the trip takes about an hour; more at rush hour. (On the other hand, it only costs $3.)

With the prosperity brought by the IT industry and outsourcing, there are hundreds of new cars added to the roads every day. They compete with  motorcycles and scooters used by commuting couples, the occasional ox-drawn cart, and thousands of the yellow-topped “auto-rickshaws”.

An “auto-rickshaw”, or just “auto”, is a three-wheeled open-sided taxi built on a two-cycle motorcycle engine.  They are cheap and easy to find, and generally reliable, but they are loud and emit clouds of noxious smoke. [Apparently some drivers add kerosene to their gas tank, to save money, but it makes a lot of smoke.]

It’s truly impressive how the auto drivers jockey for position at a stop light, squeezing between scooters and buses and cars to crowd up at the front. A driver must be aggressive to make progress, but it always seems to be courteous and, in a way, cooperative. Lane markers mean nothing to Bangalore drivers; even the dividing line is subject to interpretation.  Today, as we approached an intersection, our auto driver used the oncoming lane because it was empty, but as we passed a bus the light changed and a truck came barreling toward us. No problem, we squeezed in between. Whew.

So you’re driving through the streets, surrounded by honking (which means “I’m here” rather than “get out of my way”) and the high-pitched whine of 2-cycle motors, surrounded by a delirious mixture of smells: food cooking by sidewalk vendors, smoke from their fires, rotting trash, and exhaust.  You wince when you see pedestrians – including children – weaving through the traffic to cross the street. You marvel at the elegant woman in a sari, riding side-saddle on the back of a motorcycle (most carry two people), oblivious to the traffic while she texts on her cellphone. You smile as the few traffic cops attempt to bring some order to the chaos. You decline, repeatedly, the driver’s request that you stop by their favorite gift shop (“it’s on the way, sir”) where, no doubt, he receives some commission for bringing tourists in the door. You meet poverty face to face as beggars ask for handouts as they weave through stopped traffic. 

And yet, in these open-sided autos, you get the full experience of Bangalore, and a great view of the many beautiful temples, flowers, people, and other sights of the city.

This auto has an advertisement for school that teaches all sorts of software skills.  These ads are very common.

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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