COLUMN: Why has no one fixed the traffic yet?

By Kevin Matyi

A family of three attempts to cross a busy road outside of Cubbon Park. (Photo: Kelly Zegers)

A family of three attempts to cross a busy road outside of Cubbon Park. (Photo: Kelly Zegers)

During our reporting in Bangalore, our 13-passenger van was in a minor accident. I watched as a motorcyclist attempted to drive past us on the left shoulder. We all heard a scraping sound as the van squeezed the motorcycle against the curb for a few feet before our driver, Ganga, swerved a little to the center of the road.

The motorcyclist stumbled and brushed himself off, and both parties went their separate ways. Minor accidents like this are such a common event that no one thought to call the police, press charges or take any action other than continuing with the day.

In Bangalore, horrible traffic conditions are a daily occurrence. The government has attempted to alleviate problems, but city residents say they have noticed almost no change.

According to the Times of India, Bangalore has 10,200 kilometers, or 6,338 miles, of roadways. The Bangalore Traffic Police website says that the roads carry 5.4 million vehicles every day, 70 percent of them two-wheelers, the rest a mixture of cars, buses, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, bullock-drawn carts and other forms of transportation.

The traffic in Bangalore is both beautiful and terrifying. Its beauty is in watching the organic movement of the vehicles as they flow around each other instead of following strict rules of the road. Its terror is in watching the constant narrow escapes from accidents as drivers improvise.

It is tempting to compare Bangalore traffic to traffic in New York City. Although the cities have populations of roughly the same size, the nature of drivers’ behavior differs. In Bangalore, horns beep constantly as the traffic creeps along. In New York, honking often indicates anger or panic, but in Bangalore, horns tell drivers where other vehicles are and whether it is safe to move.

This adaptation is needed because every driver takes every opportunity to get ahead by weaving through the tightly knit traffic. Lane markings are a suggestion at best. Many intersections, some at the juncture of two or more four-lane roads, are devoid of markings, signage or traffic lights. Drivers seem to trust other people not to crash into them.

It is an assumption that is proven wrong from time to time, but accident rates in Bangalore are a fraction of the rate in New York City.

M.A. Saleem, a top official in Bangalore’s traffic police department, said that over the past five months, 2,061 accidents had been reported, or approximately 13 accidents per day. He did not describe the severity of the accidents.

In contrast, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles reported over 52,000 crashes in 2013 in New York City, or around 140 accidents per day, an order of magnitude greater than Bangalore.

To improve conditions and make driving safer in Bangalore, in 2006 the city police started the Bangalore Traffic Improvement Plan, or B-TRAC.

Under B-TRAC, the police department requested an annual grant ranging from 440 million rupees, or $6.9 million, to 984 million rupees, or $15.4 million. The state government approved the grant at approximately one-third the requested total. Instead of 3.5 billion rupees, or $62.1 million, the program was given a total of 1.2 billion rupees, or $19.4 million.

According to the official B-TRAC booklet, some of the improvements made by the program have included 30,000 new road signs and 650 BlackBerry handsets for officers to remotely check drivers’ information and possible criminal records. The BlackBerrys can print out receipts for any fines that drivers pay on the spot.

B-TRAC has also provided almost 180 traffic cameras, all connected to the Traffic Management Center, opened in 2013.

The center, located in the traffic police’s headquarters, is the brain of Bangalore’s traffic surveillance network. Live feeds from every camera in the city route back to the large, darkened room via fiber optic cables. One entire wall is taken up by 64 monitors showing various feeds. At any time, 20 officers staff the center to keep an eye on the traffic situation from their individual computer stations.

The footage is archived as evidence for Bangalore’s automated ticketing system. According to the Automated Enforcement page of the Bangalore Traffic Police website, an officer monitoring the accident notes the license plate number of the vehicles involved and electronically sends the owner of the vehicle the ticket.

A 2012 study from the Centre for Infrastructure, Sustainable Transportation and Urban Planning of the Indian Institute of Science found that between 2007 and 2010, the automated system issued over 8.8 million tickets grossing more than 1.3 billions rupees, or $21.1 million. Each year, the system has issued more tickets than any previous year.

Sub-Inspector Vasant Bhagwat, head of the traffic center, said that centralizing surveillance of the entire city in one room allows for “decision making in the shortest amount of time.” In case of a power failure, the center has its own backup power supply in the form of a generator, which would start approximately five minutes after the main power shut down.

Asked about hackers and other digital threats, Bhagwat said that no one had ever tried to hack the center.

Despite the millions of rupees spent on B-TRAC and the impressive display in the traffic center, average citizens seemed unimpressed with the results.

Purshotam T., a 60-year-old cashier at The Entertainment Store, said that while the automated ticketing system was useful, the new traffic cameras have made no appreciable difference to the traffic problems.

Anagha and Alexandria, 20-year-old students from the city, agreed that the traffic was bad but suggested a different cause. While Purshotam said that the road problems arose from politicians pocketing money intended for road maintenance, the students blamed poor planning and a rapidly growing population.

Two things all parties agree on is that there is a problem and that it is getting worse. The Bangalore Traffic Police website states that the city is experiencing a 7 percent to 10 percent increase in the number of registered vehicles annually, or between 378,000 and 540,000 more vehicles on the already overcrowded roads every year. And with the funding for B-TRAC two-thirds below proposed levels, it is likely that the city will continue to fall short of goals such as improving intersections and adding enforcement cameras.

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