What Ails Delhi Traffic?

I have been living in Delhi for nearly eight years now. For six years I was lucky to live in the cantonment area and commute to Lutyen’s Delhi. A commute of approximately six km covered in 15 to 20 mins.

For the last three months, I have been commuting across the length of Delhi from my home near the Gurgaon border to my office near the Faridabad border. This distance is approximately 34 km and it takes me about an hour and a half to cover this distance in the morning office traffic. An average speed of 22.67 km/ hr. This is the case when I use the Delhi Gurgaon Express way, an eight lane modern expressway, where the average speed is approximately 70 km/ hr and the outer ring road which is supposedly a six lane arterial road. The hour and a half commute at a leisurely cycling speed gives me lot of time to observe and mull over what is happening around me. My little analysis during my commute has allowed me to zero in on five main reasons for the pathetic affair of traffic in Delhi.

Time for some statistics. As on 31 Mar 15, there were 17,664,384 vehicles registered in Delhi. Out of these, 16,950,742 are private vehicles and balance 713,642 are commercial vehicles. In addition there are vehicles from the National Capital Region (NCR) comprising NOIDA, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Gurgaon also commuting on Delhi roads.

Delhi has a total road length of 28,508 km which translates into a road density of 1749 km/ 100 km2 of city area. This is the maximum in the country. Delhi has the best road infrastructure in India with a number of flyovers and underpasses. Roads like the Outer and Inner Ring Roads are virtually without any traffic signals.

I have a feeling that despite the daunting numbers quoted above, the average speed of Delhi traffic can be increased and there is lot of scope for improvement. So what are the five main reasons for the chaos on Delhi roads? I am not saying, these are the only reasons, but they contribute maximum to the chaos. I shall now describe each one of them in the ascending order of their contribution to Delhi’s traffic woes.

Poor Road Maintenance.   The moment you drive out of Lutyen’s Delhi, there is a perceptible change in the road surface. The quality of surface is inversely proportional to the distance from Lutyen’s Delhi. By the time I reach Faridabad, I start thanking my stars that I bought an SUV. They are a necessity. These roads can be used for practicing off-road driving. There are potholes, undulations, troughs and crests. Obviously, smaller and lower cars slow down to a crawl in these areas to prevent damaging there undersides. There are only patchwork repairs that make the surface further uneven. Roads that were dug up or damaged during construction of the metro railways have not been rebuilt properly. As a result main arterial roads like the Ring Road which were smooth have become wavy thus slowing down traffic. The drains are choked, so whenever it rains, there is water logging and we have rivers instead of roads. Thank god again for buying an SUV which can ford through 500 mm of water.

Poor Road Design.   At times, when I observe the road design, I wonder whether it was designed by an engineer. There are sharp bends in arterial roads. There are places with cross-merging traffic. All bus stops are located at the foot of flyovers. Road width is not uniform. Lane markings are not wide enough for even a sub-compact to fit in between. Eight lane highways converge into two lane flyovers. Fiasco everywhere. So how does this affect traffic?

  • Sharp bends in Ring Road, like the one near Nehru Place, stalls the traffic, slowing it down to a crawl and leading to a tail back that extends for kilometres.
  • There are places like the intersection between the road going to Dwarka and to Delhi Cantonment from Airport. There is a beautiful underpass towards Dwarka to bypass the traffic signal at the Domestic Airport. However, this traffic merges onto the road coming from the airport from the left side. To proceed towards Dwarka all traffic has to move to right side of the road. Then there is traffic coming from airport towards cantonment which merges with the Dwarka traffic from right side. 200 m ahead there is a left turn to cantonment so this traffic from airport has to move to left side of the road. Result, gridlock.
  • All buses stop at bus stops at the foot of flyovers and then cut across the road to climb onto the flyover. This blocks traffic going left under the flyover. As a result there is a traffic jam at each flyover. And god forbid if three or four buses converge together.

  • Road width is not uniform at all places. This forces the traffic into a funnel, leading to congestion. Also, as the lane widths are not uniform, roads marked as six lanes are actually four lane with wider vehicles occupying more than one lane. Though that is irrelevant to the Delhi driver. Lane driving…what’s that?
  • The epitome of design disaster is the flyover at Rao Tula Ram Marg (Road). A six lane road converges into a two lane flyover with main traffic going over the flyover. I don’t think I need to elaborate further. Next one was the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, a fantastic system killed by the implementation.
Lack of Civic Sense and Driver Ego.   This is a major issue. Double parking, stopping in the middle of the road to drop a friend, talking on mobile phone, reading messages on phone, texting in heavy traffic are all done things. Other’s convenience be damned. I have often found cars driven slowly, floating between lanes exposing other road users to danger while the driver is busy with his/ her phone. Another issue is ego, every driver has a bloated ego. I have come across innumerable drivers driving slowly in the right most lane oblivious to existence of other road users. Flashing a headlight or honking to pass is futile because… “I am the king, how can he dare overtake me?” No sir! I won’t let you pass and I won’t increase my speed. Yes, I will start defending my position by driving across lanes to prevent you from overtaking.

 Lack of Enforcement.   There is hardly any discipline on the road. Traffic rules are flouted at will. Why? Because there is no enforcement of law. One can hardly see a traffic constable at signals or junctions except when there is a Drive announced by the traffic police. Road length in Mumbai is much less and traffic density is more than Delhi, but traffic moves because rules are enforced. Mumbai traffic police is visible and is seen enforcing traffic rules. That is the reason why people drive in lanes, do not cut lanes and traffic speed can be maintained. It is slow, but smooth.

No Traffic Discipline.   The largest contributor to chaos on Delhi roads is indiscipline. Road rules? What are they? May be they are to be learnt by rote to obtain the driving license, nothing more. Thereafter there is no use for them. On Delhi roads “might” is “right”. An SUV intimidates a car, and a bus or truck intimidates an SUV and so on. Delhiites love their sports. Every drive is a game of “Chicken”. The guy with a battered car, not bothered about the next dent or scratch is the king. He can make way for himself, force people out of his way. It’s a game of Rugby, one who blocks the other guy first passes through. Giving indication of you intention to turn by switching on the indicator is like leaking the national secret, forget about turning because every Tom, Dick and Harry who comes to know that you are going to turn will overtake you from the side you are going to turn, left or right is inconsequential. At traffic signals, invariably, the guy who has to turn right would be in the left most lane, the guy turning left would be in the middle lane and the guy going straight would be in the right lane. So, when the signal turns green, traffic hardly moves. And by the time it moves, the signal is red again. Driving between lanes and lane hogging is the norm. Actually, the driver is on a lookout for the most advantageous position if either of the lanes has a block.

Solutions to these problems are complicated, simplest being maintenance of roads. Yes road designs can also be improved and police can be nudged into enforcing law. But civic sense and discipline, is that a losing battle?  

Cdr Rajesh Sinha (Retd)'s profile on LinkedIn