Masterplanning in India! Agra to Jaipur: The Rules of the Road

by Tony Chavira

From the city of Agra to Jaipur, the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan, you notice something very peculiar about transit that rings true throughout the country: that cars don’t necessarily own the road. The train system is somewhat inconsistent and light rail is almost nonexistent, considering it needs to cater to so many people on such a grand scale, so driving from city to city is pretty much your best bet for getting around. But once you’re actually in the cities, cars are just a huge waste of street space. One has to be on high alert at all times and made sure that he is seen by others around him as pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, scooterists, carriages, trucks, buses, rickshaws, tractors, horses, camels, pigs, cows, dogs, and the occasional cart of food/supplies/trinkets/stuff in the middle of the street will readily dominate your right-of-way if given the chance.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

I started this morning bantering about life in India with my all-star comedian driver and another lively character: an elderly tour guide who reeked of sugar rum and clearly wore his aviator glasses while in the dense north Indian fog to try and deal with his hangover while pretending his eyes weren’t totally bloodshot. After quick introductions, off to the Taj Mahal and Fort Agra! A clear distance from one monument to the other, the tourist-filled city of Agra is considered small by my guide at only a million people. Despite the paltry population numbers, Agra was just as wild a transit city as any I had ever visited (except possibly worse in that the main roads all led to monuments and historic buildings and were therefore overburdened with large tour buses).

Agra Fort      elephants carrying people to Agra Palace
left: Agra Fort; right: elephants carrying people to Agra Palace

My driver, unwilling to be outwitted in either conversation or maneuverability, seized whatever opportunities he could to make our way from one amazing structure to another. While doing this, he explained to me the only three road rules Indian drivers knew, which I will now recite in the order he gave them to me:

  1. Honk.
  2. Drive between lanes.
  3. Don’t be afraid to threaten to hit someone.

“Civilized” me, accustomed to sitting patiently in rush hour Los Angeles traffic for hours at a time, could only stare with my jaw against the car floor as all of his rules worked like a charm no matter where we drove. Honking gave the wide variety of travelers around us a good idea of where we were relative to them, and vice versa. This ended up subverting many potential traffic and life-ending situations, and it was strange to see that even livestock responded to car honks. Driving between lanes allowed drivers to give a buffer to cyclists, rickshaws, pedestrians, and slower riders, while alternatively providing leeway in case you wanted to pass someone or opposing traffic got worse and they needed access to another lane. And the fact that my driver constantly threatened (and a few times did) smack some pedestrians, cars, or cyclists around us forced otherwise slow or stagnant traffic to continue to flow even during the busiest part of the day, which was exactly when we finally arrived in Jaipur.

camel, driver, tour guide
(l-r): camel, driver, tour guide

A new cool guide (one of the three female guides in the entire city) and a day later, I got a whirlwind mega-tour of everything the city of Jaipur had to offer over the course of another furious 12-hour day. From fortresses and palaces to tapestries and jewelry, Jaipur is a city that explodes with commerce by day, to the point of overfilling the streets. And yet no light rail system, my guide stated to me over lunch in a somewhat sorrowful way. Apparently a 5-year plan has been put in place for both the total restoration of the publicly-accessible historical spaces and the inclusion of a new trolley or monorail system. And these kinds of planning initiatives are not at all new to the city. It turns out that the first Maharaja of Jaipur actually had a strong interest in urban planning, and was clear that he wanted the town to have a large system of walkable Main Street spaces that would easily be connected via transport (which were probably elephants, camels and carts in those days).

view from Amber Fort
view from Amber Fort

Despite these early attempts at urbanism, apparently transportation affordability was also an important and dangerous issue in these olden days. Today we seem to be more than willing to dish out the extra cash for a gas-guzzling Hummer or Escalade, and in a lot of ways we consider them symbols of our affluence. In those days, elephants served the same purpose ... except that the Maharaja knew that most people in his kingdom (even from the wealthier classes) couldn’t afford to feed to elephant as a mode of transportation. So what the Maharaja would do as a backhanded gift/punishment was give away old elephants to people. It would sort of be like giving a Hummer to an illegal immigrant family making $30 a day. How they pay for the insurance isn’t your problem, you gave them a Hummer! And yet, it was seen as a symbol of hedonistic affluence ... sound familiar at all? More interestingly, to account for all of the horses and elephants he paraded to and from his palace, the streets had extra space (which would later be used by cars, etc.), and the city was one of the first in the world to have planted street dividers. Today, though, many of those dividers seemed to serve two purposes. First, to slow down traffic and divide more of the main streets. But second, to provide an area where nomadic gypsies could try and sell their trinkets or beg for money.

view from Amber Fort
view from Amber Fort

Speaking of gypsies, a large group of them were passing through Jaipur while I was there. They even tried to steal a bottle of local whiskey I bought for my brother. Though I probably should’ve been annoyed, I couldn’t help but feel pity for their children. The thing is, education in India is mandated and the Indian government have tried everything in their power to get the gypsies to settle down someplace so that their children can get a proper education. But I guess that’s the danger of being forced to move around to stay afloat financially ... you’re stealing the future away from your children, especially when what they need most to thrive is consistency. But alas ignorance again breeds ignorance, and generations of ignorance can destine (or doom) a future generation to ignorance as well.

Maharaja's suite
Maharaja's suite
Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
tony@fourstory.org

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