One of the surprising inspirations I have found in traveling to India is the traffic. At first glance, it seems scary and chaotic, but a subtle beauty emerged as I better understood life with almost no traffic lights.
India is a fascinating place. I visited Mumbai in 2008 for work and loved the experience. This past week I have spent in Hyderabad working with our Android and API teams. There are a number of things that have struck me in my time here, and I wanted to reflect more on the traffic.
Driving (or rather riding as I have no desire to drive here!) is an almost indescribable experience. We heard stories of other colleagues who had to cover their eyes to avoid panicking. The first couple days, my anxiety was spiking regularly. It seemed as if we were constantly within seconds of crashing into someone, and the din of the honking horns started to make my head split.
People seemed to have no respect for rules of the road, or stop signs, or lane markers. At every turn, cars would pile up and somehow merge five cars side by side into two lanes. Motorbikes flowed incessantly through any gaps in the cars, blocked only by rickshaws trying to do the same. On top of all the vehicular chaos, people threaded their way through the remaining spaces.
It was easy to criticize what we were seeing as organized and unruly. To our Western, regimented minds, the lack of structure was unsettling, even appearing barbaric. We couldn’t understand how people could function without the safe guardrails of enforced rules and regulations. The stress seemed overwhelming.
And then something beautiful and magical occurred.
As we spent more time in the traffic, patterns began to emerge. The cacophony lost its harshness as individual sounds took on new meaning. Instead of random honking, an intricate auditory signaling system became evident. Instead of barely avoided accidents, an elegant dance ebbed and flowed. At the root of what appeared to be chaos was a tranquility that nearly everyone shared along with an understanding of their mutual purpose. There was a total lack of irritation displayed.
The hyper-efficient part of my brain recoiled first at the perceived disorder and the inefficiency that must surely result. Every drive we took seemed to snake back and forth through the city. I finally realized that the ubiquitous u-turns and lack of traffic lights were connected, and were a feature, not a defect. Avoiding traffic lights meant that there was a continuous flow of motion. Side streets opened on to main arteries in a single direction, and regular openings for u-turns facilitated speedy course correction.
One fascinating aspect of the u-turns was the impact on opposing traffic. Gates or cones obstructed the outer lane to make room for turning vehicles. Instead of causing problems or congestion, traffic seamlessly merged from four cars abreast spanning the two lanes to a car and a rickshaw or a couple motorcycles squeezing through. As vehicles turned and people crossed and lanes collapsed, the people calmly adapted. There was a complete lack of frustration and selfish insistence on priority.
As our group of Americans came to see the beauty beneath the chaos, we realized that understanding traffic was a key to understanding the people and their culture. Harmony and cooperation vastly exceed individualism and competition.
As I return back to where I am more comfortable driving, I hope I can take some of the lessons I have learned from Indian traffic.