The roadrunner show

The ever-busy Kodambakkam Bridge has been closed for vehicular traffic so that long-pending repair works on the edifice could be carried out. Since the bridge is a vital link, connecting some vital hubs in the city, the police have provided an alternative road arrangement, whose blueprint we hope does not ever fall into the hands of the Pacman game-makers. If it did, no player is ever going to come out alive.

The alternative traffic route given by the police covered almost all the nearby roads in all random directions, so much so that the best way to travel between point A and point B was to stay put in point A itself waiting for continental drift to bring point B to point A. And that would have been decidedly the speedier way too.

The traffic was so jammed in the inner residential roads of the area that one of my friends said that he was stuck in his car for nearly two hours, after which he lost patience, got off the vehicle, slammed its door, and walked off in a huff unmindful of the fact that he was leaving his car totally unattended. Luckily for him, it all happened in his own parking lot Yes, the traffic snarl was so bad that —- this is a first in Chennai — he couldn’t get his car out of his house itself.

But before we get snarky, let us accept that traffic management, even in the best of times, is a challenging assignment in a city like Chennai where road rules have a different meaning from the rest of the world. Let us see this with a practical example: Signal system followed all over the world — Green: Proceed. Amber: Slow down. Red: Stop. Signal system in Chennai — Green: Fast. Amber: Faster. Red: Fastest. Here in Chennai we slow down the vehicle only to get down.

When you talk of Chennai’s traffic you cannot but bring up the thing that is undoubtedly the city’s pride, one that it has well and truly pioneered: Signals that work according to quantum of the traffic at any given moment. So what is the high-end engineering behind the amazingly intuitive, automatic signals? Well, automated and automatic signals in Chennai are — you could not have guessed this — manual. If it were aviation, they would have called it, fly-by-constable technology.

 In a department that is perennially short of personnel, police authorities here smartly understood that it is simply not viable to have a constable standing in the middle of junction regulating traffic all day. Instead they wisely decided that the same constable could be put to better use in the same junction by having him operate, from a discreet corner, the signals via a switch all day.

This practical streak is the hallmark of the Chennai traffic managers. Whenever there is a complaint of traffic congestion in a street or junction, top officials discuss the issue threadbare, analyse the problem from all possible angles, take into account all the contributing factors, and then take the all important decision of …where to install traffic lights? No, where to place the barricades. This works like miracle: Traffic is no longer the problem. The barricades are.

But it is a fact that barricades are a great help in curbing speeding vehicles, which they pull off by the effective method of causing accidents. Barricades have further use on Chennai roads. When manholes go missing, which is often, the first thing we do is to reach for a nearby barricade, and thoughtfully sprawl it over the gaping spot, thereby saving people from falling into the ditch; they will merely trip all over the barricade.

In the city, one of the preferred ways by which the authorities attempt to solve traffic issues on a street is to declare it ‘one-way’. But motorists in other places when they see the ‘one-way’ board on the road, they process the message as: Traffic is allowed in one direction only, we need to take another route. We in Chennai, when we see the one-way board, however, read the command as: Drive fast.

Enterprising Chennaiites, over the years, have found another simple but highly efficient method to circumvent road rules when driving, which is to honk hard.  In Chennai, when you honk hard and non-stop — like the free-hit in cricket during which most of the rules for dismissing a batsman don’t come into effect — all road-rules practically become non-existent.

This from an actual exchange between two motorists I heard on the road a few weeks ago:

Motorist 1 (whose car had suffered a few dents): You were clearly over-speeding and, to compound it, you had jumped lanes. You were trying to overtake on the wrong side. And there was no indication that you were about to take a turn.

Motorist 2 (who had caused the damage): (In a very reasonable tone): But I was honking, no?

Anyway, just the other day as I was narrating Chennai’s traffic woes to a friend from Bangalore, he snapped back that it was far worse in his city. I asked him what is so special about Bangalore’s traffic. ‘Well’, he began, ‘it is the only place in the world where it is technically possible to get jetlagged just driving to the airport from the city’.

One of these days I plan to check that out myself by going to Bangalore. Hopefully by then the traffic jam in front of my house would have cleared.