Transportation Part 2

“Transportation” continues with guest blogger Terry…

Having graduated from foot traffic, it is necessary to investigate the most versatile vehicle in India. It is used as transport for people, goods, long distances and short ones. We have seen families, older folks, and young’uns using them: business people, delivery folks, boys, girls, men and women. You may have guessed, this is the motorcycle.

As a people transporter, the cleverest usage is to transport entire families on the highway or through town. You will see in the photo below, the Indian version of the motorcycle/ minivan. Child one sits on the gas tank, dad at the front of the seat, child two and three behind dad, and mom riding side-saddle holding the baby. Yes, you counted correctly, there are six people riding on the motorcycle. The number of people we saw on a motorcycle maxes out at six. But we are sure somewhere out there is a record seven people on a bike, cruising India.

Bikes range from old, beat-up scooters to units that look like western crotch rockets. On closer examination however, the biggest engine we saw on one of those testosterone chargers was 185cc and most of them are 125cc or smaller. For those of you who are techno weenies when it comes to mechanics, the speedy bikes in Canada have 1000cc up to 1200cc. So, the India bikes are about 1/10th the size of the engine as Canadian chargers. And the Indian ones can carry six folks down the highway. Gives a whole new meaning to easy rider!

OK, so they carry people, what else? You name it, we have seen it. Photo attached shows one carrying a load of plastic bottles. We have seen sheets of glass 3 x 5 feet tall being carried by the passenger on a motorcycle in busy city traffic. Sacks of rice, wood, sheets of plywood, the list goes on. We tried not to be too near the guys carrying the glass but they seemed quite OK with it all.

Now, safety is certainly a concern on motorcycles and so in many, but not all places there are laws that the men must wear helmets. One of our guides told us women are exempt as the helmet would ruin their hair. He was serious about this explanation. Nevertheless the women often wore their saris or a scarf over their head and/or face. They also rode side-saddle. I suppose it is not too easy to straddle a bike in the five meter long wrap of cloth known as the sari. The bikes have a special foot rest and grid to provide comfort and prevent clothes from catching in the wheel spokes.

How do they drive these 125cc multi-purpose machines? Frankly, any way they want to. The adherence to the laws of the road range from being a strong suggestion in Delhi, to vague recommendations in Jaipur, to the ultimate “you mean there are rules?” in Bangalore and Varanasi.

As in Europe, bikes all crowd to the front of traffic as traffic lights or slow downs are experienced. They then take off en masse zigging and zagging. They drive VERY close to cars, trucks and each other, squeezing through gaps they may or may not fit. It appears to be a competitive sport! There is no regard for lanes by the bikes. They often go the wrong way down a road to progress.

We saw them drive on sidewalks. We saw them ride two, three or four abreast. We saw them scoot between cars and trucks. We did not however see them hit anything. Well almost never, one pesky bike scratched the side of Michael’s driver’s van. A discussion ensued with the biker clearly arguing he did nothing of the sort and the scratch must have occurred at another time. Shoulders shrug and off we all went into traffic.

On the highway in Canada you are likely to be passed by motorcycles racing well above the speed limit. In India they have such small engines that they drive well below the speed limit which is a pleasant and welcome change. And yes, they are carrying minivan sized passenger loads or goods piled high.

Passing is an art here, for any vehicle. Vehicles in the city drive so close together that the rear and side mirrors are aimed at allowing the driver to see only 2-4 inches on either side. No hyperbole here folks. We have seen vehicles so closely packed that they had to fold in their side mirrors to get through the gaps without scraping each other. With mirrors only showing the driver the sides of their vehicle, they can’t tell if anyone is behind them, let alone wanting to pass. To address this, a modern language has been developed which is eloquent and highly functional: this language is the beep of the horn.

A short beep says, “I am behind you,” perhaps a couple to say, “I am passing.” At a corner, they beep to let any oncoming traffic know they are there. They beep to say thanks for moving over when they pass.

The one beep we hear so often in Canada was actually rare here: the “you dirty rotten so-and-so why did you cut me off?” yelling at the other driver kind of beep. For the most part drivers of all vehicles just trundled along with little road rage evident.

Back to the motorcycles. To pass a pedestrian they move over a bit and go by with a little beep. They seem to do this regardless of what is coming up beside or behind them. Ditto for passing bicycles, other motorcycles, cars, etc. The effect is a fluid sigmoid path, arcing through the roadways of the worlds’ second most populous nation; a veritable ballet on wheels.

Lanes are generally respected in Delhi until traffic gets busy. Everywhere else the preferred position for driving is directly on top of the dotted line. This allows the driver to shift left or right depending on what is happening around them. Alas, in other places the dotted lines are a serious waste of paint. One lane will have three cars wide – bikes, rickshaws and everyone else vying for their place on the road.

In all of the cacophony of beeps, swerves and maneuvers, we managed to safely traversed the cities and highways of India.
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