…plus bicycles, rickshaws, metros, taxis, motorized rickshaws, buses, jeeps, boats, motorcycles, oxen pulled carts, and camels. India has them all and I tried most of them on a recent trip to the exotic country. India is a land of dichotomies, and their transportation system is no exception.

Before landing I knew this would be an extraordinary trip. My flight from Frankfurt to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) was overbooked. I was bumped and rescheduled on a flight connecting through Mumbai (formerly Bombay). An hour before landing in Mumbai, the pilot announced that a terrorist attack was underway and our plane was being diverted to Delhi. Once in Delhi (and after over 24 hours of traveling), I was herded with other passengers who had connections into an area to be rebooked. Passengers whose final destination was to have been Mumbai were escorted to hotels to wait out the attacks.

I stood in one line, then another, before realizing there really wasn’t a line. Everyone gathered around the ticket agents – all around them – pointing at the computer screens over the agents’ shoulders, shoving tickets under their noses, and providing their own rerouting suggestions. Several hours later I was one of three people who shared one ticket booked for Kolkata.  Knowing we couldn’t board the plane without each other, our brief bond was a match for Gorilla Glue.

Finally arriving in Kolkata, I was met at the airport and driven 90 miles to Mayapur, my first destination. Clutching the seat of the Land Rover throughout the three hour ride, I groaned and gasped as we made our way through the incredible air pollution, noise, and traffic of Kolkata and down the narrow rural roads. Vehicles of every shape and size were joined on the roadway by pedestrians and animals making travel slow and filled with what appeared to be constant near misses. Though I never witnessed an accident, I was told that one of the major causes of disabilities in the country is from motorcyclists sliding under buses while attempting to eke their way between vehicles.

In India, no one has the right of way. Everyone has the right of way. Big or small; pedestrian, animal or vehicle; the road is shared. The rules of thumb are to keep moving, don’t do anything horribly erratic, honk, and do what makes sense, though the later isn’t always apparent to the uninitiated.

Take, for example, the time our chartered bus driver saw traffic slowing ahead and quickly managed to turn the bus around before gridlock set in. Heading down the divided highway towards the oncoming traffic was a bit unsettling. When a police car waved at us from the other side of the highway, the driver pulled over until the police were gone (about 30 seconds), then continued going the “wrong” way. When there was an opening in the median to cross to the other side, we uninitiated breathed a sign of relief, followed by nervous tittering when the driver turned the “wrong” way on the other side of the median and continued past  the accident that was holding up the traffic. Eventually we made it safely back to the original, “right” side and proceeded on. After leaving the womb of the tour and with a few more weeks in India under my belt, I learned that this was normal. There is very little “right” and “wrong” when it comes to traffic. You do what makes sense to get where you’re going and, as long as everyone knows that’s the rule and makes accommodations, it works.

One might think this would lead to road rage. But with literally inches between all moving things (and the oft sleeping cows and dogs lying in the streets) and the need to be alert for the unexpected, there’s no time for road rage. After the initial shock and awe of the traffic subsides, the incredibly collaborative Indian culture can be seen miraculously weaving its way through the erratic traffic patterns.

What doesn’t subside with acclimation is the horrendous air pollution. The worst I experienced was in Kolkata. Washing my face turned the wash cloth black after only a few hours outside. Health problems become apparent almost immediately as  travelers join residents  in a cacophony of coughs and sneezes.  According to a World Health Organization study, about two-thirds of the residents of Delhi and Kolkata suffered from respiratory symptoms such as common cold and dry and wet cough, much caused by two-stroke engine emissions found in motorized rickshaws and other small vehicles. Continued economic growth, urbanization, and an increase in the number of vehicles, together with lax enforcement of environmental laws, have resulted in extreme environmental degradation. Happily, action has been taken in several places across the country to address the problem, especially in the capital city of New Delhi where concern with air quality got so bad that the Supreme Court stepped in and placed a limit on the number of new car registrations.   The use of CNG is now mandatory for the  public transport systems and motorized rickshaws in Delhi  as well as in several other cities. The Delhi Transport Corporation boasts of operating the world’s largest fleet of CNG buses and today many trucks and personal vehicles across India have converted to CNG.  As a result, significant health improvements have been seen although much work remains.

The effects of air pollution go beyond personal health: rice crop yields in southern India have fallen as brown clouds block out sunlight, and the brilliant white of the famous Taj Mahal is slowly fading to a sickly yellow. In another strong action by the Supreme Court called the “Taj Mahal Case,” motorized vehicles are prohibited from operating within a given radius around the Taj Mahal and more than 200 factories have been closed.

In addition to air pollution improvements, Delhi is in the midst of a major makeover to their transportation infrastructure, in part as a result of the Commonwealth Games scheduled there in 2010. The state of the art Delhi Metro opened on December 24, 2002 becoming the second underground rapid transit system in India, after the one in operation in Kolkata. Unlike the Kolkata Metro, the Delhi Metro has a combination of elevated, at-grade and underground lines. Currently the metro system has a total network length of about 40 miles, with 62 stations on 3 separate lines. By the end of 2009, 27 ½ miles will be added, making the Metro 80% complete. The remainder will be finished by 2012. For some reason the Indian culture seems to change inside the Metro station, referred to as the gem of the city. The place is spotless and people wait patiently in line for their turn to embark on the train, confident that if the first one is too crowded, a second will arrive in moments. As in most large public places, all passengers must go through a metal detector before entering the station. When I commented to the Delhi friend I was with about the long lines at the metal detector, he quietly pointed out the park across the street from our exit where two people had died in a terrorist attack last September. Long lines become a matter of perspective.

In conjunction with building the Metro, Delhi is purchasing a new bus fleet to replace vehicles called the Blue Line. The Blue Line is aptly dubbed “the killer bus line” because of the 100 people per year killed by the poorly maintained and operated blue buses. The Blue Line is run through government contracts with individuals who own the vehicles, allegedly including some elected officials. The bus owners, in turn, lease the vehicles to drivers for a set daily fee and the drivers must make enough through daily fares to pay for all expenses including the lease, fuel, maintenance, and salary. There are no set routes so the drivers speed to the busiest places, often operating drunk and without a license. It was not until public outrage grew fierce and a court order was issued to enforce compliance with safety standards that the government acted to change the system. By the end of 2008, half the needed fleet had been purchased and in April 2009 the Delhi Transport Corporation will begin operating the new vehicles. The remaining buses will be purchased at a clip of 150 per month until the end of the year at which time the citizens of Delhi will be rid of “the killer bus”.

The new fleet has low floors to accommodate people with disabilities, however I was told the vehicles are not wheelchair accessible. The Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) returned some Metro construction plans to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) for further detailing to ensure connectivity with the Bus Rapid Transit, easy access for pedestrians and bicycles, and barrier-free access to the physically challenged. It seems the DUAC is making suggestions without the force of law, so time will tell how much their advice will be heeded.

Changes are also in store for the ramshackle New Delhi heavy rail station. By the start of the Commonwealth Games, the station, an important gateway to the city, will be completely remodeled, including air-conditioned waiting halls, new reservation counters and shopping malls. Hopefully improvements will be made to accommodate people with disabilities. Currently, there are cars identified as “for disabled” but I couldn’t see how anyone with much of a mobility impairment could board. There were also designated accessible bathrooms, which I did not see, but judging from other rail station bathrooms, I can hardly imagine they were truly accessible. I saw only one person using a wheelchair. Like most developing countries, the infrastructure in India is decidedly pedestrian unfriendly and getting around with a disability would be extremely difficult.

A final effort New Delhi has been trying unsuccessfully to make is one of the most difficult — a behavioral change. The first week of every year the city emphasizes courteous driving, including no horn honking. Honking is a major part of driving in India and the noise pollution is constant. Many vehicles have signs imploring others to “blow horn” or “please honk” and drivers readily comply. During this week in January, banners are held by the roadside and are splayed across the streets shouting “honking hurts.” All I can say on this one is…

Good Luck.

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Margi Ness

Margi Ness

Margi Ness is an Ambassador for the Community Transportation Association of America's National Resource Center. Because of her life-long career in public transportation, Margi was particularly interested in India's transportation network. Margi is a former resident of Atlanta who currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.