Our first real experience in India was a Taxi ride. As soon as we had managed to explain to the airport taxi drivers how to get to our lodging an hour away (which included a lot of pointing, dancing, and calling people we know in Assam who speak the local Assamese and enough English) we piled into two tiny 4 seat cars, built by the domestic company “Tata”, and entrusted our lives to two local teenagers in flip flops.
It was a harrowing experience- something like the part of Mario Kart where you race through oncoming traffic, combined with a bad DVD action game where you can’t actually control anything, but much more realistic. I will say that I have never been more impressed with the skill of a driver. India drivers, especially of the taxi variety, basically drive as fast as they can, which isn’t always fast in the congested streets. Lanes are more of suggestions, and it is perfectly normal to pass cars by travelling in the wrong lane until the last possible moment when you veer back into the place before hitting an oncoming vehicle. Additionally, everyone honks constantly. Not in anger or frustration, but in friendly communication. Drivers honk when they want to pass, while they’re passing or just constantly in order to notify other cars of their current location.
I suspect that our two drivers, whether friends or rivals, were in an all out race to the destination, but an hour and several wrong turns (due to the severe language barrier) later, we arrived safely at the Rickshaw Bank office.
Traveling the streets for the first time, there was an overwhelming number of new things to observe, but a key thing to note here is the spectrum of transportation.
In the USA we see a huge gap in the types of transportation available. We can walk or bike, let’s say a biker and bike way approximately 200 lbs, or we drive in a 3000 lb. car. Yes, there are motorcycles in between, but with the size of motorcycle engines that are actually sold and used in the US, we aren’t gaining significant efficiency over cars. After that public transportation fills in the rest, but we’re left with an enormous gap between biking and driving. In the streets of Assam, I was immediately struck by whole much fuller, and smarter, that spectrum is. People walk, bike, or take rickshaws for shorter distances (Rickshaws in US cities are rarely used by anyone but tourists). After this there are motorized rickshaws that use tiny 10-15 hp engines to travel ~25 mph, and then extremely compact cars, barely larger than the rickshaws. Additionally, 100 cc motorcycles are as common as cars or bikes. There are full size cars, SUV’s, busses, and cargo trucks, the result is a complete cross section of road based transportation, all of it packed into what would be stand still traffic if it weren’t for the maneuverable shape and size of so many of the vehicles. This is a transportation system that seems to work for everybody, including the environment. From the very rich driving cars we would consider luxury, down to the Rickshaw drivers and bike riders living on $3 a day or less, the same road in this dense city carries people across the state or just a few blocks within reasonable time, that is, whenever there aren’t cows laying the road.