January 01, 2007

Bangalore Day 4 - Impressions of Roads and Traffic

One of the first impressions I got of Bangalore was the traffic. I had heard from many people that the traffic was going to be bad and I had mentally prepared myself for floods of traffic. On the way in from the airport though, traffic was more of a trickle than a flood. Granted it was something like 6am, but I had expected more!

The next day we got more. Our hotel was on a main road. This road was apparently originally called "Double Road" because it was one of the very few divided multi-lane roads in Bangalore. It's official name at that time was "Residency Road" and that is still what most people call it, though it's official name is now "FM Cariappa Road" due to the great renaming of roads. Apparently roads all over India are being renamed from the colonial names with names that reflect important or famous people in India's history. This means that a road may have three or four different names. We do similar things here in the Bay Area - do you know where Army Street is in San Francisco, or Grove Street is in Berkeley?

Traffic on Residency Road was a flood of trucks, bicycles, motorcycles and scooters (collectively called "two wheelers"), automobiles, busses, even bullock carts and autorickshaws. Lots and lots of autorickshaws. nominally it's a four lane road but in fact there are no lanes. Vehicles go whereever they see an opening tootling their horns merrily as they go. Horn use in Bangalore is different from how horns are used in the US. You use your horn liberally to say "here I am" - to alert people to your presence, to let them know you're planning to pass them, to let people merging to know to check how close they are, to warn pedestrians to watch out. It was rare to hear a horn used in anger, to say "hurry up," "get out of my way," or "you idiot!" Debbie (and I) hate horns in the US, and I was sure she'd hate all the horns in India, but no, they don't feel nearly as upsetting.

If Residency Road was a flood, the smaller streets were rivers and streams, and even the alleys were trickles of traffic. I don't think the traffic itself was all that much heavier than heavy traffic anywhere, but it was unrelenting. There was always traffic. You could never just stroll across a road, even a small one, because someone would be driving on it. Further, not only do pedestrians not have the "right of way" cars expect you to get out of their way, and you damn well better. Even walking on the sidewalk across a driveway, cars do not in general slow down or try to avoid you as they exit or enter. It is up to you, fragile human, to avoid the vehicles.

I've tagged my photos taken in Bangalore to make it easy to see where they were taken, but it was not so easy finding the places we wanted to go to. There aren't really good maps of Bangalore, although Google has recently put a good map online and Microsoft Research has something called "Virtual India" but I've lately had trouble getting Virtual India to work. Paper maps, especially the tourist ones from hotels are useless. Even if you have the exact street address of some place, it's not nearly as helpful as you might think. Because there are no good maps, you can't look up the address on a map. You can ask someone, but unless the street is big and well known, your interlocutor is unlikely to know the actual street - there are a lot of streets in a big city, and Bangalore is a big city. Even those professional street-name-knowers, the taxi drivers (or in this case autorickshaw drivers) are unlikely to be familiar with that specific street. For one thing, the street may have three or four names, and you may be using one of the ones that the driver is not familiar with. For another thing, names are reused from neighborhood to neighborhood, so you may need to qualify the street name with the part of the city. If all you have is a street address, you may not know the neighborhood! This means that directions in Bangalore are generally given in terms of neighborhoods and landmarks. If you don't know the landmarks near your destination, and the neighborhood it's in, it's quite likely you won't be able to get there from here.

For example, Google is at "3 Vittal Mallya Road." None of the autorickshaw drivers seem to have heard of this road. Instead you tell them you want to go to some local landmark, like the St. Mark's Hotel around the corner then direct them when you get close. This scheme is not limited to ignorant foreigners, I'm told by locals that this is how everyone gives directions. Our hotel, The Chancery Pavilion, while big and fancy is relatively new, and often drivers would not have heard about it (or worse, would think we were talking about "The Chancery" a related hotel about a mile away.) Even telling them "Chancery Pavilion" "Residence Road" "Richmond Town" wouldn't help. However telling them "Bangalore Club back gate" would get us close enough to direct them across the street to our hotel.

Let me explain a little about autorickshaws. They are three wheeled contraptions with bright yellow vinyl coated cloth canopies with noisy little two stroke engines. They are controlled like motorcycles and are ubiquitous. Nominally you tell the driver your destination, he drops the meter's flag, drives you there, and you pay the fare on the meter. Currently that's Rs 12 for the first 1.6 km, and Rs 6 for each km after that and 1.5x that between 10pm and 5am. That's the theory. In practice autorickshaw drivers are notorious for overcharging passengers. First they will try to negotiate a fixed rate, which is always higher than the meter rate. They will refuse to take you if you want the meter rate, they will take you by a longer indirect route, they will try to add the 50% premium on top of electronic meters that already have the extra built in. If all that fails they will wheedle. Yet they remain the most popular and common form of transportation in the city.

At first we were scared of them. They're small, open, and fragile looking. Bangaloreans have a deserved reputation of being open, easygoing, and friendly. Not the autorickshaw drivers! They can be cunning, hard, abusive, and impatient. They don't understand our English and we speak no Kannada. Even if we did I doubt my ability to explain where we want to go. So at first we asked the hotel to get their driver to take us where we wanted to go and we either walked back (from Google) or had the driver come pick us up (from Dakshin.) I later discovered that this was costing approximately 10x what an auto [as autorickshaws are called] would have cost. Eventually though, after going to the Garuda Mall for dinner at Sikander we decided to be brave and take an auto home.

It was a blast! We ended up paying a fixed fare that was probably 50% above what we should have paid. Rs 60 instead or Rs 40 - Call it $1.50 instead of $1, for the two of us. But we got an up close view of the street and the people, and got to see streets we would otherwise have never visited. We heard some of the rich invective that is possible in the Kannada language, and felt connected to the street and people in a way you can't feel locked behind the air conditioned glass of a private automobile. Even if we get a car and driver (and we likely will) I can tell that autos will be a big part of our travel plans in Bangalore.
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