Donna and Joe have finished their assignment in India. Occasionally they still travel somewhere.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bangalore by Bicycle

The good thing about riding a bicycle in Bangalore is that every vehicle on the road has equals status. Another advantage is the on most streets, most of the time, traffic moves slowly enough that a bicycle is not the slowest thing on the road. So a bicycle can make a right turn (we drive on the left here) across a busy street and merge into the traffic and drivers will give you the same 20cm of clearance they would give any other vehicle. The first picture shows a typical intersection of two medium sized streets. Really big intersections have traffic signals, the next tier have traffic cops during rush hour. This intersection isn't that big and this was a Saturday afternoon. Crossing such an intersection involves proceeding slowly, sounding your horn and deciding if the oncoming driver has time to stop if you pull in front of him. If he has time, and you honked, he will let you in. That seems to be the only real rule of Bangalore driving. Which side of the street you drive on, which direction to travel on a one way street, and what to do at a traffic signal all appear to be more suggestions than actual rules.
Traffic lights have an interesting twist here. In the US when the light goes from green to yellow many people rush across the intersection before the light goes red. Here traffic usually stops. So the people on the cross street, don't wait for the light to go green. The proceed across the intersection as soon as the cross traffic stops (or mostly stops). At some intersections the light goes red and yellow at the same time so that you can tell the light has gone yellow for the cross traffic.
The horn is used differently here in Bangalore. In the US the horn is used infrequently and generally means either "get out of my way" or "you #%@!, you violate my right of way". In Bangalore it means "I'm here." Since you are always "here" wherever that happens to be and there are always new vehicle to inform of that, fact the horn is used frequently. Many trucks and some auto-rickshaws have "Sound Horn" written on the back. When overtaking someone you sound your horn to let them know you are there. When entering an uncontrolled intersection you sound your horn to let cross traffic know your there. If you decide to drive on the right side of the road (usually we drive on the left here) you sound your horn to let people who many be coming at you know your there.
I took this second photo on my bicycle the same Saturday afternoon while waiting for a traffic light to change. It shows that the concept of traffic lanes is not all that meaningful in Bangalore. Notice there are two auto-rickshaws in the same "lane" as one car behind them. In front of them the white van is occupying the lane of one auto-rickshaw and the two-wheeler lane next to it.
Two wheelers (the motorized kind) are the most common vehicle on the road. It is not uncommon to see a man driving a two wheeler with a child on the seat in front of him and his wife on the seat behind him holding another child on her lap. Sometime there is a third child holding on behind the mother. The driver of a motorcycle is required by law to wear a helmet and most do. Passengers are not covered by the law. I have never seen a passenger wearing a helmet. The only bicycle helmet I have seen in Bangalore is mine. There are several reasons two wheelers are so popular. One is the cost; to buy it, to maintain it and to fuel it. I'm not sure what the price of gas is here because my car is a diesel; diesel fuel cost about $3.50 a gallon.
Another reason they are popular is that a two wheeler is the quickest way to get around. The reason a motorcycle is so much faster that a car is its small size. While sitting in my car either dead still in traffic or moving at a few miles/hour I frequently see motorcycles come past the car in a space narrow enough that the handle bars nearly touch the vehicle on either side. If they can't continue straight to pass the car in front they may turn 90 degrees, cross in front of my car then turn forward into the next small space. If they need to fold your car's mirror back to get through, they will. Or some kindly drivers will do it for them.
The second most common vehicle is the auto-rickshaw (the yellow topped vehicles in the first two pictures.) These three wheel vehicles more closely related to a motorcycle than a car. The driver has handlebars with throttle and gear controls just like a motorcycle. Most are powered by two-cycle gas engines, although the government as a program to convert them to natural gas to cut down on pollution. When carrying a driver and two or three passengers they are so underpowered that I frequently pass them on my bicycle going up hills.

The slowest "vehicles" are wondering cows. I set out by bicycle this afternoon with the explicit goal of photographing a cow in traffic. It is not uncommon for cows to graze around the city unattended and they frequently wonder across the road or walk down road through the traffic. Or just stop dead in the middle of it, for no apparent reason. Although I saw several grazing unattended on the side of the road, this was as close as I could find to one in traffic. The man on the motorcycle is not actually talking to the cow...he's talking to the man who is walking the cow down the side of the street. The truck is driving by neither surprised or annoyed that they are stopped in the street. It is not uncommon for vehicles to stop wherever they need to stop and traffic flows around them. On this same street as I was riding my bicycle two young men on a motorcycle came up behind me, matched their speed to mine, and we discussed my the rear view mirror mounted on my eyeglasses, where I was from and where I would get if I followed this road.

Donna's turn:

On the subject of honking horns, it didn't take me long to observe that the honks coincided almost perfectly with the entering the blind spot of the vehicle in front of you. Our driver told me one day that in some places it was considered rude to honk, but in Bangalore it was rude (and often dangerous) NOT to honk. It's like vehicle sonar. You hear rather than see what's behind you. The larger the vehicle you are going past, the longer you have to honk, until he can see you out his window. That is why the trucks have the sign instructing people to sound their horn. Since drivers are so close together, and constantly changing lanes, your horn lets them know you're too close behind them for them to move into the lane in front of you. It's noisy, but it actually works extremely well. An American we ate lunch with thought that the U.S. could learn a lesson from their driving!

Another thing you don't see in the U.S. is signs on vehicles proclaiming that they are air conditioned, and some other words that basically indicate that therefore they will not use hand signals.

While walking Luna this week we encountered a herd of 5 horses grazing in a weed covered lot. Luna didn't phase them as they walked closer to me to see if I had food. I noticed one had a large semicircular cut on it's shoulder that had been stitched. I asked a man standing across the street whose they were, and he just shrugged. Someone I talked to saw them on the opposite side of the development later on. And I was told that often when horses are no longer useful for pulling carts, etc, they are just released to fend for themselves. Animals in America are so lucky.

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