Relax. All traffic problems, says Tom Vanderbilt in Traffic, are as old as traffic itself. In ancient Rome, Caesar slapped a daytime ban on carts and chariots, “except to transport construction materials for temples of the God or for other great public works or to take away demolition materials”.
Speeding has also been a social problem ever since traffic existed. In 1720, traffic fatalities from “furiously driven” carts and coaches were the leading cause of deaths in London, eclipsing fire and “immoderate quaffing”. In 1867 New York, horses galloping ahead of the 5 mile-an-hour speed limit, thanks to reckless drivers, were killing an average of four pedestrians a week.
Jammed: Delhi has 48 kinds of vehicles on its roads. Praveen Kumar / HindustanTimes
New York has moved on, but things haven’t changed much in India, as Vanderbilt must have found during his research. Delhi, for example, has 48 kinds of vehicles—New York has only five—clogging its roads. Inherently anti-poor, India’s capital is also the world’s most pedestrian-unfriendly city. New, powerful cars have strangely meant more gridlocks and more crashes. This is also a city where a top ex-traffic cop tells the writer that cows on the roads are actually a blessing in disguise—they “force a driver to slow down”. “The overall impact,” the ex-cop says, “is to reduce the tendency to overspeed and to rashly and negligently drive.”
For commuters, it means grim tidings. In the US, Vanderbilt says, the fastest growing categories of commuters are the “extreme” ones, people who spend upwards of 2 hours in the traffic. Many of these commuters are people pushed out into the suburbs by higher home prices. This is where Indian cities are fast catching up—the only difference here is you could take more than an hour to cover 15km.
Does that mean traffic will trigger off new businesses in India? FM radio is already big with commuters, and urchins already sell magazines and pirated Jeffrey Archers at intersections. On-the-go food and drive-in eateries could be the next big thing. In the US, “dashboard” dining is common, helped by on-the-go food. About 22% of all restaurant meals are ordered through a car window in the US. Traffic has also shaped the food—mostly of the forkless variety that Americans eat. There are “portable stain removers” to help during spills. Care for idli-dosas on the go?
Traffic: Allen Lane, 375 pages, $24.95 (around Rs1,150).
Vanderbilt’s pop sociology is less compelling than his research as he deconstructs traffic and delves into driving habits around the world. “In traffic,” he writes, “we struggle to stay human.” He says anger or road rage seems intended to maintain our sense of identity, another human trait that is lost in traffic—“The driver is reduced to a brand of vehicle, and an anonymous licence plate number.” That’s why he flaunts bumper stickers and personalized vanity plates in the US. That’s why, in India, he plonks beacon lights on the roof and pastes fake “press” stickers on the back.
And it doesn’t stop there. Car owners in India strut their caste—haven’t you seen those “proud to be Jat” stickers?—and nondescript family with “Chintu, Pintu and Jyoti” stickers. Slightly more vain types stick US university stickers, many of which, I suspect, are bought from eBay. More honest are homilies such as “No life without wife” stickers usually found on Ambassadors. In Bangladesh, I found cathartic poetry painted on trucks. “Janma theke jolchi” (been burning since my birth), said a red-painted aphorism on a diesel tank on the highway to Chittagong.
Too much attention to research and Vanderbilt’s predilection for pop sociology sadly makes Traffic run out of gas in the end. He makes a big deal about how the car has become a “useful place for self-expression”. Yes, people grieve, cry, nose-pick, burp, shout out aloud, make love and fight in cars. A lot of the times they do some of this because they are spending more time on the road these days. Then there are inanities: “Men honk more than women, people in cities honk more than people in small towns, people are more reluctant to honk at drivers in ‘nice’ cars.” Are you really impressed by no-brainer research: Someone driving on Sunday morning at 3am has an accident risk 134 times greater than someone driving at 10am on Sunday? Or that the fatality risk is 26% lower in the back seat of a car than in the front? Give me a break.
Soutik Biswas is online editor, BBC India.
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