Jatin Gupta drives an old-fashioned, rounded, black Ambassador taxi. On the dashboard he keeps a miniature, glow-in-the-dark Ganesh, the Indian god of success. A sticker with two Bollywood stars sits in a corner of his windshield, wreathed by orange blossoms. With these amulets he is ready to face the New Delhi traffic.
We are traveling down Joseph Broz Tito Marg, a major thoroughfare, on our way to a new shopping complex.
To call the Marg busy is an understatement. Toyota SUVs blend with yellow-green auto-rickshaws, the engine-powered upgrade to the ever present hand carts. Hordes of motorcycles fight for tarmac against dozens of Maruti Suzukis and Tata Indicas, the country’s popular family cars. Today, there are few pedestrians; the road doesn’t have sidewalks, and drivers tend to ignore crossing paths anyway.
“Every day I am thanking the gods for the diesel prohibition,” Jatin says. Decades ago, the local government banned the fuel, sparing citizens the fumes, but the number of cars has since jumped to over seven million, and the city once again leads the global smog league.Yet Delhi is the transportation envy of the rest of the country. Though streets clog at rush hour, the city’s biggest roads, with six lanes (three in each direction) hold more cars than India’s other cities.
Getting around is all about “the flow”. As we push along the Marg, shop owners sell tires, sweets, and paratha bread along the road. Cyclists fight for space not only against cars, but also street dogs, beggars, and the occasional cow. Traffic is moving at a slow but steady pace—the poor quality of the roads prevents speeding here.
A colorfully decorated truck in front bears the sign, “Honk please”. Jatin obliges. Honking in Delhi is a taximan’s version of office chatter. It has almost nothing to do with traffic rules, of which there are precious few.
“Nobody cares about rule of right of way,” Jatin says. He zips past an overcrowded bus with a lone passenger clinging to the back. “In India, the only rule is that if you can do something, you just do it.”
A motorcycle cuts us off and makes an aggressive U-turn. Such arrogance would prompt a bout of road rage in smaller cities, yet Jatin sits calmly behind the wheel. “I have learned to chill,” he says. “The entire road isn’t yours; you have your little piece only.”
But when we get stuck at a red light in the Bus Rapid Transit corridor for almost ten minutes, Jatin complains. “This is a horrible design,” he mutters. A few years ago, bus lanes were constructed in the middle of the road. The model came from Curitiba, Brazil but hasn’t quite worked here. The idea was to allow public transportation to move faster in dedicated central lanes, but the placement bottlenecks traffic and forces pedestrians to dodge traffic to board.
We approach my destination, and I begin squinting for my friend’s house. As I stare out the passenger window, Jatin hops over to the opposite lane, defying oncoming traffic. “Shortcut,” he explains.
Nobody even bothers to honk.