driving in India

Patterns of Software by Richard Gabriel is one of my favourite books. On page 60 he quotes Christopher Alexander (who is talking about D'Arcy Thompson)
What Thompson insisted on was that every form is basically the end result of a certain growth process. ... Thompson was saying that everything is the way it is today because it is the result of a certain history - which of course includes how it got made. At the time I read this I did not really understand it very well; whereas I now realize that he is completely right.
I'll use an example to try and illustrate this idea of, as Jerry Weinberg puts it, things being the way they are because they got that way. The example is driving in India.

The most obvious thing that strikes me when I visit Bangalore or Chennai is the almost constant horn tooting. Is tooting your horn a formally taught behaviour, or is it learned behaviour I wondered. I asked some friends who live in India. They said it is not something you're taught. It is learned behaviour. I find this fascinating. It could mean that at some point in past tooting was common, but not endemic, and that for some reason or reasons it reached a tipping point and became endemic. What are those reasons? Why did they prevail? Do those reasons apply to all Indian cities or are some quieter than others? Do the reasons shed any light on whether endemic horn tooting will or won't ever go away?

A pattern I started to sense during my most recent trip is when a slow vehicle is stuck behind an even slower vehicle (a bus for example) and toots the horn as if to say "move over". The bus slowly moves over, the first vehicle passes it, and as it goes by toots twice, the first toot to say "thank" and the second toot to say "you". I never got the sense the tooting was overtly aggressive. I think drivers are tooting mostly to tell other drivers where they are. Considering the apparent chaos everyone is remarkably relaxed! The tooting has become part of a system of communication.

Naturally, once certain behaviours get a foothold, other behaviours adapt to them, helping to reinforce the co-evolving system. Drivers of slow vehicles start to rely on other drivers tooting them if they want to pass. They politely ask people to toot them by painting "Blow horn" signs on the backs and sides of their trucks. Artistic individuals spot an opportunity and, for a small fee, offer to paint ever more elaborate "Horn please" signs. Before you know it Volkswagen pre-fits cars it sells in India with slightly louder electromechanical horns. Now some truck drivers don't move over unless they're tooted and you have to toot if you want to pass. Viola. A co-evolving, intertwingled, history. Things are the way they are because they've got that way.

Large potholes in the road are common. Roads in India don't really have left lanes and right lanes so much as worse lanes and better lanes. I certainly don't recall seeing any white-line lane-dividers. What looks like total lane switching "indiscipline" is again simply sensible adaptive driving.

If traffic moved very fast the frequent lane switching would be downright dangerous. But traffic doesn't move fast. One reason is simply that lots of the traffic is old. Driving a new car in a sea of old cars could be quite dangerous (because of the brakes). Perhaps that's partly why the roads are regularly punctuated with pretty severe speed-bumps (actual ones as well as the pot holes). The speed-bumps keep your speed low even if you have a new car. So why buy a more expensive new car? Things are the way they are because they've got that way.

The traffic is also very varied. There are trucks, buses, masses of 3 wheeler took-tooks, huge numbers of motorbikes, push-bikes, push-trikes, pedestrians, carts, cows, you name it. As the traffic constantly switches lanes spaces of varying sizes constantly appear. No matter what the size of the space, there is always some form of road user just the right size to fill it. The variety encourages lane switching and the lane switching encourages variety. It gets that way.

Another reason traffic crawls is sheer numbers. More than a billion people Iive in India. There's a lot of traffic because there's a lot of people. And a lot of those people are young people. According to Wikipedia more than 50% of the Indian population is below the age of 25! The average middle-class home in a city such as Chennai is about 20 times the average middle class salary. Combine that with 10%+ interest rates and it's easy to see that a lot of people cannot afford to live in the city where they work. With so many young people, a hot climate, and a urban army of forced commuters it's no wonder there are so many motorbikes and buses, and increasingly, small cars. Things are the way they are because they got that way.

And a system that has got a certain way will, all things being equal, want to stay that way. A system will resist change. That's virtually a definition of a system. Only by resisting does it sit still long enough to be recognisable as something at all!

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