Tragedy of the commons
One thing that has clearly become worse in Mumbai over the years is traffic. The streets are utterly chaotic and it can take hours of heart pounding ride to reach from point A to point B.
Different types of vehicles follow different strategies to progress on the road. The buses dominate. They go where they feel like. The cars come next. They take up any space left around buses. Then come the two wheelers. They ensure that not a single inch of space is left unused. In the northern suburbs, auto rickshaws (tuk-Tratuks) are allowed to operate. Their job is to occupy the niche between two-wheelers and cars. The whole mass moves forward, ever changing, and writhing along.
I am convinced that there is a new type of repulsive force in play here. It ensures that no two vehicles under the command of Indian drivers touch each other. In the West, one would have perhaps one narrow miss every other day; a situation where you almost collided but did not. On the streets of Mumbai, there are narrow misses every minute if not more frequently. If an opening is found, perhaps in the wake of a bus, every vehicle rushes in to fill it. They wriggle around, moving ever so slowly. But, there is no collision.
You can forget about driving here. Even sitting in front while your driver executes these maneuvers is not for the faint of heart. I had to take my eyes off the front of the road and focus on what was going on the two sides. I had to remind myself that yes we have traveller’s insurance and the medical care in India is generally good, especially if your hosts are wealthy people and have good contacts.
The bravery of the souls on two-wheelers can only be admired. Whole families (I counted up to four) go on these vehicles. At most the driver, the father generally, would be wearing a helmet. The kid in front, and the one in the back with his mother, would have no protection. Yet, because of the yet-to-be-discovered repulsive force mentioned above, there are no accidents. This is a doctoral thesis material.
Travelling by car is a great equalizer. It does not matter what car you are driving, you have to go with the flow. In Los Angeles we all have witnessed a BMW driver suffering from impatience or inferiority complex making a mad dash through traffic to gain a few minutes. Let him try that in Mumbai. His dash would come to a screeching halt by a two-wheeler driver who would cut him off because he just saw a space in front of him.
Traffic in India is a prime example of what happens when the tragedy of the common strikes. Briefly, that tragedy refers to what happens to a “common,” a space where the cows of the village are sent to get their meals. If the grass becomes scarce, the prudent action would be to have the owners of every cow to apply restraint so that the remaining grass will survive even though each cow will get less nourishment. If however, a greedy person decides to let his cow eat as much as she wants, and others think the same way, grass will disappear and every cow will starve.
Something happens in Indian traffic. If the drivers observe rules, they will all go with a steady speed, but if one decides to take an advantage and cuts someone off, and everyone follows his example, there is nothing but chaos. Everyone comes to a stop until things sort out.
There may be light at the end of the tunnel. Mumbai is going to have a first class Metro system by 2025 comprised of 200 stations along twelve lines totaling 146 miles. Only one line is operational as of now but the construction is proceeding furiously. That, plus a Coastal Road to be built, will provide alternatives to the driving on congested arteries, and reduce traffic. However, two factors cast a shadow. If the traffic becomes more bearable than now, more people may decide to move to this city. It is already a magnet for folks from the entire country. A bigger factor is the DNA that the Indian drivers are born with. That will prevent them from following rules and make traffic orderly.