Monday, February 15, 2010

Transportation in Calcutta: 9 ways in 8 hours

Calcutta has gotten a bad rap. My robust first-hand research, conducted over a grueling 8 hours in the course of a sunny and dry January day (I'm hoping you're reading the tongue-in-cheek in all this) led me to the following conclusion: Calcutta has an unusually resilient and effect transportation mix and that functions pretty well. Is this true everywhere and for all the people? Who knows, I was only there one day.

Modes of transportation I took:

Walking. On central city roads, we crossed at crosswalks and with pedestrian countdown lights. At one intersection in Dalhousie Square, a traffic policeman tightened and loosened a rope stretched across the intersection in conjunction with the traffic light, to securely keep bicycles, rickshaws and cars from opportunistically sneaking through. On small roads and in back alleys, non-motorized traffic predominates, pedestrians walk everywhere and yield to heavier faster moving rickshaws, carts and the occasional truck).

Ferry boat. Huge ancient metal ferries lumber back and forth across the Ganges at 15 minute intervals, connecting to the Central Train station. Amazingly, everyone accesses the ramp down to the ferry by crossing directly over railway tracks, on which crochety old trains pass every 8 minutes or so at medium speeds.

While we were standing on the metal barge, watching the Ganges flow by, with clumps of water hyacinth and plastic trash, there was a sudden grinding, squealing, and bumping. Everyone jumped back with alarm. What had happened? The tide had turned! Incredibly fast, swift, and abrupt reversal of flow now going upstream. I'd never seen anything like it.

Howrah Bridge.
Sort of a transportation mode. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the busiest bridge in the world, transporting a million people a day. How is that possible? Certainly impossible with the Western idea of "congestion", meaning people traveling alone in their cars. Instead, Four lanes of motorized traffic (almost no single occupancy vehicles and many a stuffed bus) and two wide sidewalks that held a steady stream of pedestrians. Many of these people carried improbably heavy loads on their heads, going to/from the railway and bus stations which is at the one end of the bridge. It seemed like an incredibly efficient use of space.

It could use a dedicated nonmotorised lane for the bikes carrying cargo, and I dreamed of some kind of cable pulley that could lighten the loads of all those people heavily burdened crossing the bridge.

Electric Trolley. Once we got over the bridge, and through the spectacular flower market, we took an electric trolley across town. It was ancient, clean, incredibly loud, wooden slats on floor, and not crowded when we took it at midday. Many times people were let on and off without the trolley coming to a complete stop. 4 rupees (10 cents) This is an old photo, but my untrained eye says this is the same exact trolley and the same street as what I took.

Shared Auto Rickshaw. Post lunch, we hopped into a new auto rickshaw. I slid over to the far side, and my guide, Vinay, squeezed up close to me. I was surprised. Then another man slide next to Vinay and a young women sat in the jumpseat up front with the driver. She kept her back to him and faced outwards. A nice safe and modest stance so close to an unknown male. Apparently, these rickshaws ply their way up and down this specific route. 4 rupees (10 cents) per person irrespective of distance. We went about 10 blocks and hopped out. I love LOVE love love LOVE auto rickshaws, when powered by clean fuel. Space efficient, fuel efficient, versatile, fast. Western cities should have them.

Hand Rickshaw.
Woah. Did I really want to be pulled by a barefoot man in his sixties through traffic? It was a quandry. This is his livelihood, and these rickshaws are licensed by the city because of Calcutta's long history with them. Apparently they aren't made anymore and the one I was in was likely close to 100 years old. Vinay and I sat hip bone to hip bone. It could not have accommodated any wider people. Our driver (puller?) had glasses held on by a string around his head (highly unusual Vinay tells me).

Unexpectedly, he runs with the poles held up under his arms, rather than letting the poles hang down with straight arms. And yes, he runs, unless he is stopped. Apparently the human rickshaws (I don't know what you call them) are particularly maneouverable in dense traffic (they can turn in a small radius) and good in Monsoons (no motor to stall).

We traveled about 10 blocks. It seemed fine. Another 4 rupees.

Back across town in rush hour. The platform is wide, the train is clean and crowded as rush hour trains everywhere. Middle class people going from school and work to home, as well as the young family we sat near: from out of town carrying their 6 month old to meet his paternal grandparents for the first time. 4 rupees.
Taxi. With suitcase collected from my hotel, we creep through city traffic during rush hour to the airport. One hour for 250 rupees (about $5).

And then of course, plane.You know what those look like.

1 comment:

Ankit Lohia said...

Wow, I have never seen such a attention by anyone towards their mode of travelling. Robin u r great !!