When I lived in India for six months in 2014 doing environmental research, I always traveled to my host institution in the northern Bangalore suburbs on my bicycle. It was 6 km away and only took me about 20 minutes. It was a lovely trip through a colorful neighborhood and I relished the sights, smells, and sounds. But, the rides were challenging, both physically and emotionally.
In India, I learned that the road belongs to everyone and to no one. The concept of “yielding” to others doesn’t exist. Stripes that define lanes were meaningless. Passing and honking the horn, anytime and anywhere, was the rule. Turn signals were rarely used and traffic signals or stop signs were often ignored. The asphalt road was one big sea of traffic that defied Western norms.
Buses, trucks, cars, auto rickshaws, motorcycles, pushcarts, pedestrians, cows, goats, and dogs all competed for street space that was often too narrow to accommodate even half the users. Everyone was territorial when it came to their use of the roadway. Cows didn’t budge; buses crowded the center of the street, and motorcycles weaved in and out of traffic as if they were on a motor-cross road race. If you showed any timidity on the road, you would get passed, pushed, and pissed! I should also mention that traffic moves forward on the left side of the road as it does in England.
India is an amazing democracy and equality applies to everyone on the road. Even as a noticeable non-Indian, I received no deferential treatment from vehicles, animals, or people.
During my ride to and from work, I endured the same road hazards as everyone else. In the daily ebb and flow of traffic, we all had to dodge wandering cows (please don’t let me hit one!), inhale diesel fumes from belching buses, and avoid crumbling, cracked and cavernous pot-holed street surfaces.
From these experiences, my rules for biking became:
1. Concentrate on the road ahead and don’t become distracted by the surroundings, no matter how crazy the sights or sounds.
2. Ride defensively. Have an “out” in your mind if you need to take evasive action to avoid someone or something.
3. Be assertive about the space you occupy.
4. Be seen and heard. I rode with front and back strobe lights blazing on at all times, ringing my annoying bicycle bell incessantly, and yelling when necessary.
In spite of all the crazy road chaos and regular frustration with drivers, I actually improved my bicycle riding skills during that time in India. I learned to anticipate the unexpected, became more aware of my surroundings, and acquired more confidence in riding safely on terrible roads and among aggressive drivers.
So, thank you India for a great six months exploring your beautiful and diverse country. By taking on your challenging roads, I’ve become a better bicyclist! – David Manski