Threshold of Order in Traffic Systems

The video above captures a typical flow pattern on a typical street in Hyderabad, India. An opening in the median allows vehicles in the top lane to turn across the opposite lane to reach a side street. The seemingly blind intentionality of the turning drivers and the disinclination of oncoming traffic to stop for them is startling. It drives up the blood pressure a little bit to watch it. I’ve heard that there’s a shared, though intermittently observed, system of right-of-way that prevails on dense, chaotic Indian streets like this one. Perhaps its only legend; I think I learned it from the Youtube comments section, but apparently larger vehicles are given precedence over smaller vehicles. This is for the very pragmatic reason that in the instance of an accident a bus or a delivery truck will cause quite a lot more damage than a motorcycle. Essentially, the more dangerous your vehicle the more likely others are to defer to you on the street. So even in the mess of Madrassi traffic, there is a system of public safety in place that it works most of the time, though not as often as the efficient, organized systems found in protestant Christian countries where obedience to the common rule is unquestioned and everyone is willing to respect everyone else’s turn.

This next video is also quite harrowing. It was taken from a helmet-mounted camera worn by someone who is participating in a bike messenger race through the heart of Manhattan. The cyclists thread their way through different lanes of traffic, cutoff pedestrians in crosswalks, and stare down oncoming traffic at every intersection.

Certainly this journey through New York City very closely resembles the dizzying trajectories of the rickshaw peddlers in the Hyderabad video. There is, however, one important distinction between the two. The people in the India traffic video are continually re-establishing a new set of rules with one another which will allow them all to reach their destinations quickly and safely. As new people arrive in the intersection new demands are placed on the system, and the system then has to adjust itself to accommodate its new constituents. We see constant improvisation exercised by everyone involved. Rules are made and broken and remade again, and this process of rule-making and rule-breaking is collaborative. Contrast this with the example of the Manhattan bike race: cyclists encounter a fixed system of rules (cars remain in their lanes, they stop at stoplights, pedestrians enter the street only in designated areas, motorists wishing to turn left against several lanes of traffic remain out of the intersection until signaled to go). Because of the reliability/rigidity of the urban American traffic system, the cyclists are able to safely predict how everyone they encounter will behave. The predictability allows them to construct a plan of action far ahead of time without having to reconstruct that plan abruptly and all subsequent decision thereafter.

I think this proves that in the consistency of reliable order lies the very key to its own undoing. The better one can calculate an outcome, the easier it is for that outcome to be manipulated or circumvented or, to call it as it is called today, hacked. The Manhattan bike messengers and the Hyderabad rickshaw drivers might share precarious circumstances which closely remember one another, but they are really nothing alike. The bike messengers are exploiting a system of order and trying to operate outside of it, at its margins. The drivers in Hyderabad, on the other hand, convene in the middle of the street and together negotiate a system that accounts for everyone present. There is no subverting such a system. It will accommodate you, even when you actively try to defy it.

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