Tonight I walked among the tigers. Okay, tigers don’t hang out in packs, but wildebeest do, so maybe it’s them I walk among.
After heavy rainfall on my local high street, a teeming, lawless main road, I had to negotiate a muddy verge in rush hour in the semi-dark. On one side, a shallow ditch thick with watery sludge. On the other, a herd of impatient motorbikes funnelling through a narrow path which only I occupied.
Forget about sidewalks, footpaths or pavements. It was just cars at my right arm and hell on my left. And at my heels the roaring bikes waiting to gobble me up.
Luckily I had a stick and an umbrella. I held one in each hand to mark out my territory and walked on fearlessly.
What makes our drivers in such a hurry? Though the traffic was almost at a standstill, every gap had to be filled, wherever it was, making sure no human being on foot could pass.
Welcome to the challenges of an Indian city!
Crossing this seething road was another obstacle. Ever since I have had to walk with a stick, I’ve been better armed than most. But don’t expect to see zebra crossings, blinking Walk-Don’t-Walk lights or any of the considerate street furniture that aims to please the pedestrian in the west.
No. We who walk on the street here walk on the wild side. We are the lowest of the low. We are the highway’s much maligned ‘untouchable’ classes – dangerous touchable in fact. In this street-dog-eat-street-dog world, we are the mangy beast whose time has come. We have no rights. We have no recourse. And, wow, are we vulnerable!
…I have been walking such roads on and off for years and I have never seen an accident. I have ridden a bicycle when I was able to, and only once witnessed a – minor – collision.
So in this survivalist world, in an over-populated and under-infrastructured country, the herd mentality that does what the man in front does, that forges onwards guided only by the presence of another occupant of the space ahead, reigns supreme. Here they go, never quite trampling anyone, rarely buffeting or bumping or bruising, even, though you expect to see such knocks and crashes wherever you look.
Not long back, I read that in the UK and US, experiments were made with a view to cutting down accident rates, specifically at major crossroads. When, after much resistance, the Americans began replacing traffic lights with roundabouts – a feature of modern highway design that had somehow escaped them – the outcome was remarkable. Traffic slowed down. Accidents were reduced. And there were fewer polluting emissions because there was less stopping and starting. A healthier traffic moved with the flow.
More interesting is what happened to a small town called Poynton, in England…
A busy through-road between two cities completely divided the locals down the middle, impeding their ability to move freely around town and creating tension in everyone. Action was taken at a major crossroads in the centre of town where there was an unprecedented amount of accidents.
They took away the traffic lights and pedestrian crossings altogether and changed the nature of the cramped and cluttered crossroads to double mini-roundabouts marked only by different patterns on the road’s surface (something they call roundels). They then replaced their raised pavement kerbs with a variety of flat, coloured tiles, posted a few planters and removed every street sign in sight.
With all signage gone, a miracle happened.
Cars slowed down. Drivers began looking at people instead of road signs. The town’s communal senses revived and the accident rates plummeted. Everything turned quieter and gentler.
What they discovered was that perhaps, after all, human beings are not designed to bucket around at top speed, guided only by their obedience to lights, laws and instructions from a highway code. Left to their own devices, people relate to people. They see them, respect their rights to occupy the same space and respond – as one herding buffalo might to another – to the laws of the natural life.
The scheme was called ‘shared space’ – something that some of us may relate to in a different context.
What does that tell us about the shared space of India’s poorly designed roads?
Essentially, that although pedestrians here appear to receive none of the consideration shown them by drivers in the UK and the US, and the roads appear at times to be a massed onslaught of impatient animals, traffic still moves, bikes flow and people survive.
For someone who walks a lot, it does feel like I’m surrounded by stampeding wildebeest, but it’s slow for a stampede and the creatures do seem to find a way to avoid you. In spite of all appearances, and certainly without any of the courtesy of the British public in the Poynton example, I am still given the right to occupy my space, even when I am squeezed to within an inch on both sides.
So while I might at times long for a more Poynton-like walking environment, my urban herd experiences do have one interesting advantage: they are just another way in which existence forces me into the present moment – meditation on the hop (in my case, almost literally).