My average day here goes something like this: I do research and then I take a walk to explore my small section of the city. In truth it’s not all that glamorous. Anywhere you live will have a certain amount of routine. Yet what makes being in India so interesting for me is that it’s all new and different from what I know. There are some similarities, a McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Dominos and Pizza Hut all within walking distance of me. Yet even these things which are familiar to me have their differences from what I would find in the US. You won’t find beef or pork at these places. You can get a paneer sandwich (a type of Indian cheese) and the food is spicier than what you would find in the US. Even the pizza can be pretty spicy. There are even masala flavored lays potato chips which are spicy and spicy masala ramen (both are pretty tasty.) French fries however, seem to have a certain universality to them.
In my research, I see the city academically. I read articles and news coverage on the planning issues of the city. Topics I won’t go into here for the sake of not boring everyone. When I walk around the city, I truly see it. The area in which I live in isn’t very walkable. Cracks in the side walk and trees blocking the way invariable cause me to interact with Indian traffic. Well, more accurately dodge. To understand Indian traffic is to understand informality. There are rules, but those rules aren’t followed. In the absence of regular established rules, new ones emerge. For another anecdote about informality in India see my previous blog post.
From my observations I have surmised the rules of Indian driving are:
- Drive on the left side of the road
- Obey traffic lights (Although I’ve seen this one broken.)
- Lanes are optional. If there is a space on road you can occupy, you do it.
- You honk you horn to communicate the following:
- You are passing
- Stay out of my space
- You are passing side streets and don’t want others to pull out
- A general sense of displeasure
- When you might run into another vehicle or pedestrian swerve if you can, slow down only if you have to.
- Everything else is do what you can, when you can. (This rule trumps all others and is the most important to keep in mind.)
With everyone using their horn to communicate with one another the road turns in to a crowded room with everyone speaking to each other. I hear it more as a cacophony of car horns. I’ve learned these rules in an effort not to get hit by cars as I cross the street. There are cross walks but those are for aesthetic purposed much like lane lines. My main trick has been to follow the locals. For all of my observations Indian driving seems to require an intuitive sense about how it works that I don’t know I’ve fully figured out. The rules I’ve laid out above are by no means comprehensive. All of this has come to be recognized by those who design the roads. There are speed limits, but speed bumps build into the road cause people to slow down rather than formal rules.
Informality also creates the widespread mixed use in the city. (Mixed use is when there is more than one land use occurring in an area. For example, a house next to a business or ground floor retail in an apartment building.) While there are zoning laws and mixed use is illegal unless the road is 40 feet wide, there is little enforcement. You’ll see a small grocery store or a tea stall with apartments above, an office in an apartment building, a house next to businesses on a busy road. Mixed use is how the city organically wants to be. (Perhaps part of the reason it works here is you won’t see any big box stores with large parking requirements. Commercial use slips seamlessly into residential areas in a way a Walmart can’t into a suburban neighborhood.) The rules can only be bent so much though and so most of the buildings are no taller than 4 or 5 floors. Trees supplement the little shade provided by the short buildings. The trees here grow tall and most everywhere. They seem a beloved part of the city. I know I would miss the shade they provide if they weren’t there. Yet any place without trees or buildings, people play cricket. An open space made of hard clay or even sometimes the road, look for a bat and a ball.
All of these observations are seemingly banal. Yet the banalities become important to what a place is. The trees do more than just provide shade. Mixed use means that I can walk a few streets over and eat at a restaurant or get groceries because it’s right near where I live rather than drive to commercial area. We don’t always make these observations and yet they shape our lives in ways we might not realize. What we also don’t always realize is that how our cities look and feel to us was planned. Or in the case of Bangalore, not so planned. Cities are unique environments because we create and control them. Just as Churchill said, “We shape our buildings thereafter they shape us,” so too do our cities.
Post Script: I wrote this about a week ago but haven’t had time to upload it, my daily routine has since then changed.