Everyone who has ever lived in Bangalore has a harrowing traffic story to tell. Whether it’s that time your vehicle got stuck in a flooded pothole while it was pouring with rain; or when an hour-long trip from the airport took you four hours to complete; perhaps it was your engine getting overheated after spending hours inching along in backed up traffic.

All of these and more have happened to me, or to people I know. My personal favourite is the time a cab driver abandoned me underneath Silk Board Flyover during a thunderstorm, because, and I quote: “It was raining”.

Bangalore is one of India’s fastest-growing cities, and people from all over India flock here to get a job. But one of the things it’s become infamous for is its terrible traffic, so much so that the hashtag #bangaloretraffic has been trending on twitter. But before we get into the whys, let’s take a look at how we got here.

How Bangalore Became, Well, Bangalore

Modern-day Bangalore began life in 1537 as a fort built by Kempe Gowda I, a feudal ruler of the Vijayanagara Empire. When this empire fell in 1565, the town changed hands multiple times before being sold to Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar (the ruler of the kingdom of Mysore) by the British in the year 1680 since then (apart from a brief stint with Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan) it remained under the control of the Maharaja of Mysore.

Bangalore taken in the 1890s
A photo of Bangalore taken in the 1890s by an unknown photographer, from the Curzon Collection’s “Souvenir of Mysore Album”. (Photo: British Library/ Via: Wikimedia Commons)

When in 1809 the British Raj shifted the cantonment outside the old city of Bangalore, the town grew exponentially. It was eventually named the capital of the newly formed state of Mysore after independence. The city grew even more rapidly in the 56 days remaining the capital of the renamed state of Karnataka in 1956 and becoming India’s 6th largest city in 1961.

Once said to be a “pensioner’s paradise,” the early 1990s saw a tech boom in Bangalore. Many global IT firms began opening offices here, bringing with them a massive influx of people from across the country to the “Silicon Valley of India”. Thus, the city’s population grew from 5.6 million in 2001 to 8.6 million in 2011 (when the last census was taken); today, it’s estimated that over 12.4 million people live in Bangalore (or Bengaluru’s) urban area. In total, the city has grown to twice its size in the past 40 years.

But wait… is the city’s population really the source of its terrible traffic? Many cities with much higher population densities don’t suffer from similar issues; for example, New York City (which has 10,200 people/km²) has traffic congestion on a much smaller scale than Bangalore (where there are 6,000 people/km²). 

MG Road, Bangalore, 1990s
The now crowded MG Road, Bangalore, in the 1990s (Wikimedia Commons)

What all these dry statistics don’t tell you is that, while Bangalore’s population has more than doubled, it’s infrastructure has failed to keep pace. 

So What’s The Problem Then?

The problem starts with the roads themselves. Returning to the example of New York City, there the roads follow a well-planned grid pattern, where the roads run parallel and across each other. The benefit of such a system is that the traffic is evenly distributed as there are multiple routes from one point to another. 

In Bangalore, on the other hand, the roads mostly follow an irregular pattern. Here there is often just one or two main routes to get from point to point. This means that lots of smaller streets feed onto one main road, leading to congestion. Such streets are the inevitable result of the ineffective distribution of traffic and of rapid-unplanned growth. Bangalore also faces the negative impact of the main roads themselves not being wide enough to accommodate the traffic.

NYC versus BLR streets
The streets of New York City (L) versus those in Bangalore (R) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Many of Bangalore’s roads were designed and planned well before this boom in population occurred (something that also led to many lakes in the city being filled in and built over). So, with narrow roads and little scope of widening them  – due to lots of shops and houses being built directly onto the roads themselves – an upgrade in road infrastructure doesn’t seem likely to solve the problem of traffic congestion. 

Oh, But It Gets Worse

Further exacerbating the problem, many roads are blocked by parked cars, ever-present building work, road repairs, and even the ongoing construction of the Metro. Even footpaths are encroached upon by hawkers and vendors; and where they’re empty, the pavements are often in disrepair or being ripped apart for utilities or sewage work, with little respite between projects. 

Add to this the general conditions of the roads themselves, poor traffic management, and the fact that so many motorists refuse to follow road discipline, and you have a recipe for disaster. 

To make matters worse, with global warming and ocean storms come heavier and heavier monsoon rains. And this is something the city’s drainage and sewage systems were just not equipped to deal with. Roads become flooded rivers, and all construction sites simply turn into hazardous mud pits. 

“Car Car Car Ellnodi Car”

There are around 6,500 buses operating in the city and only Phase I of the city’s Metro Rail system (covering 42 kilometres) is currently operational; construction is ongoing on Phase II. Additionally, in the absence of an efficient public transport system, private vehicles (or cabs and auto-rickshaws) dominate the landscape and take up a lot of space per person on already narrow streets.

Brigade Road, Bangalore Traffic
Traffic at Brigade Road, one of the busiest shopping areas of Bangalore

In 1990 there were around 600,000 vehicles operating in the city. Today, there are over 7.3 million vehicles in the city (including 1.4 m cars and 4.6 million two-wheelers), and thousands more entering from outside the city every day; this is a 6000% increase. It’s no wonder that the already clogged streets are often reduced to utter chaos. And, as one Quora user puts it, “In a traffic jam, we honk and honk and honk because all the vehicles in front of us will magically disappear with our honking.”

Bangaloreans Are Economical People; We Don’t Waste Space, Even On The Road

According to the Bangalore Traffic Police (BTP), some of the worst choke points in the city are at Silk Board Junction, Tin Factory Junction, Hebbal Circle, St John’s Junction, and Kengeri Bus Stand. 

While there are also traffic-heavy areas around schools and the central business district (such as Mayo Hall, Vellara Junction, Residency Road, etc) these roads are the gateways to the city’s IT hubs and thus see the worst of it. The very fact that most of these IT parks are even concentrated in a single area, makes matters worse. 

But really, none of this really matters much to you when you spend day after day in traffic that’s moving at less than 10 kilometres/hour, squeezed between buses and trucks as far as the eye can see, and with motorcyclists trying to push past. Everyone’s constantly in a hurry, desperate to reach somewhere first, always ready to squeeze into any small space and overtake vehicles in front.

As another Quora user states, “When you are driving a car and get ‘stuck’ in Bangalore traffic, you are not stuck – you ARE traffic.”

When In Doubt, We Turn To Xenophobia

Sadly, lots of people just blame the population influx (especially that from other states) for this problem. But, as we’ve seen above, this isn’t the main problem, just a small portion of it. Moreover, no city can ever grow economically without migrants, and it’s the job of those in power and the urban planners to ensure that the city can handle this. 

Racism, prejudice and xenophobia are everywhere in India, and never stronger than when there’s a problem. While much of the population is generally hospitable, there is always a (very vocal) minority that is outsider-hating and jingoistic. Whether it’s being heckled for not knowing the local language (which for Bangalore is Kannada) or being accused of “spoiling our culture,” the idea of restricting a space only to ‘people like us’ is not the way forward. 

If You’re Frustrated By The Bangalore Traffic, (Don’t) Tweet About It

So what can we possibly do about this? Move house to somewhere near your school/work? Walk to wherever you’re going? Cut down all the trees to widen roads? None of these solutions is feasible or sustainable. 

Of course, ideally, what Bangalore needs is a well connected and well functioning public transport system. This would lead to emptier roads, and much more manageable traffic. But as one “wise man” comments on Twitter:

Also, public transport isn’t the be-all and end-all solution to the Bangalore traffic problem. Indian cities like Delhi and Kolkata have excellent public transportation systems, yet they still suffer from comparable levels of traffic congestion. Thinking that public transportation is the only solution limits us from looking into other ways of dealing with the issue

These might include limiting heavy vehicles like trucks and intercity buses to certain non-peak hours of the day or creating separate lanes for larger vehicles and for two-wheelers. Of course, with any new rule, there should also be measures put into place to ensure that people actually follow them (plus the rules we already have). 

But let’s be real; much like tweeting about it, sitting in an office and writing an article about how terrible Bangalore traffic isn’t really going to do much to change it. So go out there and try to make a difference. 

Do you have any stories about the terrible Bangalore traffic? Or suggestions on how to improve the situation? If so, tell us all about them in the comments below.



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