Internal Combustion

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The local newspaper has been running articles almost every day on the growing traffic problems here in Pune. According to the Times, there has been a sharp increase in the number of vehicles on the roads. The city has 1.4 million vehicles (3.3 vehicles per family) and, I read, adds 600 vehicles a day that emit 1.8 million tons of carbon dioxide per day.


At the upper end of this chain of automotive being are buses and trucks. These larger, most-often beautifully-colored goods carriers run on the major roads. There are school buses in the mornings and afternoons, plying the major routes and minor lanes, and a few delivery trucks darting in and out of our neighborhood. There are the ubiquitous subcompact cars, a few mid-size jeeps and luxury sedans, as well as few older, and more stately white ambassadors.

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The auto rickshaws, horns blaring, weave and dodge all over the road, or pack themselves in a queue at street corners like fish on the edge of a reef. Filling every other inch of road space are two wheelers—schools of them, moving together, as well as solo riders darting in and out of the traffic. I’m fond of the slow and rusty motor scooters with pensioners and their bags. I also like the colors of the many women who have taken to two wheelers. I’m less drawn to the newer and flashier two wheelers, driven by younger men, careening dangerously through the traffic. There are single drivers, couples, women in colorful fabrics and low heels, and there are families with one or two children riding in the middle and a woman riding side-saddle on the back. There are deliveries on the two wheelers (from bags of recyclables to pizza). Drivers of two wheelers speed to their destinations, horns curteously blaring to let other drivers and pedestrians know they are there, with one finger on the horn and, more often than not, with a cell phone in the other hand.

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The traffic in Pune is chaotic and, from our North American perspective, horrifyingly dangerous. I’ve never seen so many vehicles, even on Second Avenue in Manhattan. Here, drivers move at variable speeds, weaving back and forth around pedestrains, slower rickshaws, buffalo carts, and an ocassional horse or camel. Two wheelers cut at odd angles into the traffic. The middle line, if there is one, is meaningless as vehicles of all sizes fill unused space on the roadway. Traffic circles, or chowks, are perhaps the most efficient intersections, although they are often backed up. The other intersections are marginally controlled by lights, or a traffic official in light brown pants and shirt. And yet in spite of the signals and whistles the intersections mostly work by timing. Once a certain time and/or backup is reached, people start inching forward, horns start blaring until the batch of vehicles claims the path through the intersection.


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From another perspective the whole spectacle is completely logical, even beautiful—provided one is not trying to get anywhere on a timeline. My current theory is that there is a grand orchestrator at work here. Not incidentally, there are no outward signs of anger among the multitude of drivers and throngs of pedestrians. (If this were the US, everyone would surely have killed one another, mostly out of fury and frustration, and the streets would be empty.) Is it tolerance? I don’t know. People just move or don’t move. They take it as it comes, rolling their heads from side to side with a little smile, a charming but enigmatic Indian gesture that can mean yes, no, or I simply have no idea.


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