What shocked me the most when I moved to Mumbai was the countless number of ambulance drivers racing through the streets in unmarked cars. Had riots returned to the city and thousands of injured were being rushed to the hospital?
To my (temporary) relief, I saw no news reports of violence. But, what was going on? What were all these emergencies? Why were these ambulance drivers in common cars?
The answer hit me when I found out the operator of my vehicle was also an ambulance driver. I was simply going to meet a friend for a casual lunch. No emergency, yet my driver laid into his horn because a biker stood in his way.
Further down the road, a rickshaw’s horn belched in the direction of a street kid who took a second too long to step back. Now, everywhere I looked, I noticed drivers being aggressive and disruptive towards anything that walked or pedalled.
Right of way
New York, my previous city of residence, is also a concrete jungle. But there, pedestrians and bikers are at the top of the transportation food chain. Automobile drivers yield to walkers and give wide berth to cyclists.
Of course, New Yorkers are not more amicable than Mumbaikers as their ‘time is money’ attitude is pervasive. Yet, this makes their respect for the pedestrian and bicyclist all the more remarkable.
New York’s walkable street culture is sacred . In contrast, Mumbai street culture is governed by a simple rule – the bigger and louder the vehicle, the more rights it has.
As a trained urban planner, I strongly believe hierarchy on the street dictates a city’s sustainability, from an environmental, economic, and social equity perspective. From an environmental perspective, the argument is simple. The more pleasant the experience is for walkers and bikers, the more people will walk and bike. This means less pollution and smaller pant sizes for an increasingly overweight population.
From a social perspective, the street hierarchy works in more subtle ways. Why should a SUV carrying two people feel entitled to drive aggressively down a crowded market street?
This action not only pollutes the air with a loud horn and car exhaust, but degrades a rich Indian social fabric by interrupting commerce and conversation and sending the message: money is might, get out of my way.
This behavior seeps into the subconscious that one car owner with money takes precedence over 300 street vendors, street children, and pedestrians. Acceptance of this has too much association with the caste system, glorifies ills of the modern world, and undermines a glorious part of Indian culture.
From an economic perspective, streets and their extensions – sidewalks, cafes, and parks – are where innovation happens. This culture enables financiers, doctors, and lawyers to have chance encounters with social workers, teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs across all socioeconomic levels. The collision of ideas across disciplines creates innovation; innovation leads to jobs and a vibrant economy.
Perhaps one should call the Mumbai street scene ‘different’ and not be so judgmental. After all, the street culture is transparent, the ‘rules’ are obeyed, and a stunning amount of movement takes place. But I know Mumbai can do better. Mumbaikars must invert the street’s hierarchy and get a more sustainable future — environmentally, socially, and economically.