Human Traffic(ing)

I’ve been taking photos out the side of my auto-rickshaw on the way to work. I love it because there’s nowhere else you can hang out of a moving vehicle a foot off the ground while going 30 mph, and where everyone is driving about a foot away from each other and usually in some degree of au plein aire.  It’s a set of conditions that may be maddening for getting from point A to point B, but awesome for photography.

Bangalore streets are aggressive, competitive, polluted, and exhausting for everyone involved. Full of people who, like commuters everywhere, see each other as traffic. At the same time, there’s an intimacy to it that is at the essence of the urban — that “being together of strangers”-ness (to quote Iris Young) that gives cities their heartbeat.

The meta may be a mess, but the micro is something else entirely.

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Photo of the Day

A new apartment building is going up on my street, which means that entire families are sifting sand, mixing cement, and carrying loads of bricks on their heads. This boy, who is peering out of the fencing around the property, is probably not old enough to work yet, but I’ve seen kids maybe a year older than him caring for younger siblings as their moms work.

Drill First, Ask Questions Later

The typical way to deal with dysfunctional urban governance in India – assuming you have the money – is to opt out. You buy a diesel generator. You drill a well. You live and work well outside the city center to avoid the traffic. . . at least until the city you left behind swallows you up. Or, in the case of Gurgaon, a swanky suburb of Delhi, the water runs out.

Gurgaon’s water table has been dropping by over a meter a year. Most of the natural lakes in the region are gone. The monsoon has been disappointing this year, so many residents are now relying on water tankers. Such residents, who bought “villas” on “sprawling greens” in a region with no surface water, are rightly (if somewhat hypocritically) alarmed.

And they just scored a win in court. The State high court just prevented the local development authority from issuing new development permits if the developers cannot certify they won’t use groundwater in the construction.

Okay, so it’s a partial victory – the target of the suit is the short-term construction impacts, not the long-term impacts of building Southern California in North India. That being said, it’s another sign that the while the sun may not be setting on the Wild West days of Indian real estate development, it’s at least starting to feel like midafternoon. Here’s what those crazy tree-huggers at the Economic Times had to say:

This ban may come as a jolt to many but the real issue at stake is larger than just construction in Gurgaon. It goes to the very heart of what kind of urbanisation we want in India. Should urbanisation proceed heedless of basic issues like where the water is going to come from and where the sewage will flow to? Clearly not. Urbanisation of this kind might seem like development in the short run but is obviously not sustainable since it puts an unbearable strain on natural resources.

Gurgaon isn’t alone in pulling the plug on the bring-your-own-straw party.

In Bangalore, anyone could drill a well without a permit until, hmm. . . let’s see. . . last week. Some parts of town are now at 176% exploitation – that is, sucking up water nearly twice as fast as it can be recharged. Like the Haryana ruling, however, the new rules are a small step on a long, hot, dusty road. Because water draw will be metered and capped, the main effect will be felt by the private tanker operators (and the customers that depend on them. Permits will provide much-needed data as well as to create an opportunity for low-level functionary to pocket what they consider much-needed bribes. (Think I’m cynical? Check out .) Unfortunately, the registration fees are quite low (between about $1 and $10), so what it it won’t do is create a disincentive to opt out of the public system. And it stands true in the U.S. as well as India that when everyone opts out and games the system, pretty soon you don’t have a system to game anymore.

Sustainable Unsustainability

Quick: Rick Moranis and environmental regulations. Connect the dots.

Need help? It starts with the new Greendex survey of consumer behavior and attitudes by the National Geographic Society, which found that Indians and Chinese have the smallest environmental footprint but feel the most guilty about their consumption choices. Americans, predictably, consume the least sustainably and the most guilt-free. You can insert your favorite symbol of XXL American consumption here. . .

. . . but the general trend holds true for developed countries in general — greater impact, less guilt. Sorry, Canada.

The study also highlights how folks in those fast-developing economies feel the least empowered to have an impact on the environment. My question is, is the survey asking the right question? That is, is our emphasis on consumer choices misplaced?

I am all for conscious consumption and responsible choices. However, our personal choices are seriously limited by the infrastructure we build, the regulations we pass, and the legal incentives we create. Whether we go for the shade-grown organic at the local free trade coffee shop is frosting. Good frosting. Delicious frosting. Important frosting! But frosting.

This got me thinking about how deeply we’ve managed to shift the idea of environmentalism toward personal choices and away from collective ones in the U.S.:

We make unsustainability pretty. 

Consumption in the U.S. evolved concurrent with the mechanisms to manage that consumption. I’ll call it sustainable unsustainability: with the exception of traffic jams, we’re really good at keeping our impacts out of sight and out of mind, no blackouts or piles of trash in the street to remind us of our no-less-real impacts. Here’s where Rick Moranis comes in — our pretty overconsumption puts us smack in the middle of a Little Shop of Horrors scenario, where Seymor figures out ways to manage the growing appetite of his cute little alien plant, until the day he’s hacking up the dentist and fighting for his own life.

Not so in India. Here, consumer culture descended full-grown and tentacled, and utterly absent the mechanisms to manage its day-to-day impacts. Walking around, the ground is littered with foil wrappers for betel nuts and snack mix, which a decade ago would have been wrapped in a betel leaf or a cone of newspaper. The amount of trash that people are generating, and the durability of that trash, has totally overshot the systems for dealing with that trash.

Yes, people consume here, often with a level of conspicuousness that borders on the giddy. But the fact that it’s a lot harder to sweep things under the rug is a daily reminder that no, things are not OK in Bangalore, or on Planet Earth. This, in turn, creates an opportunity to build support for ground rules to regulate consumption.

Green is a tribal affiliation.

There’s nothing natural or inevitable about the fact that caring about the environment is a political statement. blame the think globally, act locally narrative – the very emphasis on personal choices in the first place – as much as I blame our dramatically polarized culture. (For a fascinating tale of how our consumption choices, neighborhoods, and political attitudes come in red and blue straightjackets, visit Bill Bishop’s incredible Big Sort.) Thinking back to Greendex, I’m going to bet that huge swaths of the U.S. are ideologically incapable of admitting to themselves or others that they felt guilty about their environmental impact — that’s what the NPR-listening latte-sippers do.

In my experience, tree-hugging weirdos are considered tree-hugging weirdos to some degree or another the world over, but the idea that giving a damn about the planet is a partisan statement is not so entrenched elsewhere.

We’ve already built our future.

Cities are ecosystems. We’ve built a feedback loop on big cars, highways, and big houses. When Americans contemplate transit, for example, most of them see no immediate value for themselves because, let’s face it, we’ve built a set of hard, cold, facts on the ground that makes it very difficult for transit to provide value. Building something different seems big, expensive, scary, and (most importantly) like we’re backtracking.

Not so in Asia, where the future is being built today, and where nothing has settled into “normal.” In India, McKinsey predicts the urban population will nearly double, from 340 million today to 590 million in 2030. The urban environment that is built to house them is what is going to determine the sustainability of their “choices” as much as our urban environment constrains ours.

Obviously, developing countries, at least their elected leaders, are pretty keen on protect their citizens’ right (?) to consume.  (See: Rio+20.) However, the Greendex suggests a fluidity of environmental attitudes that could be channeled toward building cities where sustainability is the path of least resistance, not a lifestyle statement. I’d like to think we can (must) do the same in the U.S., too, but I don’t think the road there is one that travels through personal guilt.

Backpack — check. Guidebook — check. Diapers — check.

Toddlers do not easily fit through airport security. They appreciate spicy food about as much as your great-aunt from North Dakota does. They may be afraid of bugs, prone to carsickness, afflicted by heat rash, easily bored. Plus, they’re heavy.

They are, in short, exactly the wrong thing to bring on a trip to India, which is where I am at the moment with my 2-year-old daughter Ezrah.

That makes them exactly the right thing to bring.

I hereby propose a little kid as the must-have travel accessory for the postmodern traveler – something totally extreme, way more bad-ass than hitching a ride in the back of an open truck in a snowstorm, or spending the night sleeping on the luggage rack of a third-class train.

What is this doing on a blog about cities? Thinking about cities is ultimately thinking about place, and how we experience the places that surround us. And the fact is that we usually experience them in a very limited manner, floating about in a bubble of geography and money. Travel of the low-budget, self-consciously “think global” kind is supposed to be a way to break us out of that.

Maybe it is. But more often it seems that budget travel has become just another brand of packaged tourist experience, one heavy on cheap international cuisine and rustic-but-not-uncomfortable accommodation. One that looks and tastes eerily familiar the world over. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not weeping for some mythic golden age of “real” travel. The point is rather that I no longer expect grand revelations and personal growth when I throw some malaria pills in my backpack and head off somewhere with a lower GDP than the USA. I expect something kind of like this:

Look at me. Look at the guy with the huge bag of rocks on his head. I mean, come on.

That’s why it’s been so surprising that when I brought my daughter to India, grand revelations are exactly what I found.

Here’s why:

We make lots of friends

It’s easy to make friends when you travel. Most backpackers come home with a bunch of photos like this:

You know the routine. You smile. They smile. You smile some more while they take pictures of you with your camera. Somewhere, a chorus of angels starts humming “we are the world.” These encounters are always sweet, but they always leave me feeling like they accentuate difference rather than commonality.

Ezrah inspires a lot of these superficial encounters. She’s the most exotic thing around, and everyone wants to tickle, hug, and take pictures of the foreign baby. But what’s been refreshing is how the universal simplicity of entertaining a toddler has helped turn some of these encounters into something more human than what I normally get out of sharing biscuits and small talk about how many brothers I have. The best way I can describe it is that Ezrah plays the role of a conversation piece for people whose lives are so different that we’d have little to talk about even if we did speak the same language. Our difference ceases to be the basis of our interaction. We’re hanging out because hanging out with a kid is fun.

Why does this matter? After all, at the end of the day we still all go home to our vastly different lives. In the meantime, however, I’ve found it makes me far more conscious of the extent to which I usually see the people around me as scenery. It forces me to confront the superficial way in which I usually move through the world.

It rekindles my empathy

One of the weird things about backpacker culture is that it comes with a sort of antagonism to the host country.  Not getting ripped off is a sign of your bona fides, so people who will spend $5 on a beer will then turn around and argue “on principle” over 20 cents with an auto-rickshaw driver who makes $100 a month.  (I’ve never heard a good explanation of what exactly that “principle” is, but there’s broad consensus that it exists.) Plus, you kind of want to suffer – occasionally – so you’ll have enough of those tales of narrow escapes and temporary discomfort to hang with the cool kids at the hostel bar.  The result is that the hassle and stress becomes a badge to be earned, not a reminder of the inequality that should be at least sometimes weighing on your conscience.

Let me tell you: you have not suffered til you’ve suffered with a toddler. There is no misery like that which can be generated by a small, hungry, hot, tired person, especially when you’re hungry, hot, tired, and helpless to make her feel better. The extra responsibility for Ezrah’s suffering is a constant reminder that whatever discomfort she and I experience is self-imposed and temporary. I have never so much appreciated my usual standard of living, as compared to the daily experience of the hundreds of millions of people who are raising their children amid all of India’s challenges. I have spent this trip thinking things like, what if I had to beg for Ezrah’s food? What if I had to bathe her in this nasty water? Drive the family around on a scooter? And then I give the poor auto driver his extra 10 rupees for God’s sake. On principle.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not posting this to say I’ve found some “right” or “authentic” way to travel. I’m not playing the “who travels best” game. I know I’m still fantastically cushioned from what it would actually be like to be responsible for a child in lower-income India. To be honest, at this point we’ve pretty much pulled the plug on our days of backpacker hostels and second-class trains. Sufficiently enlightened, we’ve declared enough with the suffering.

But I am left with realizations that came from hitting the road with Ezrah — a nice “get over yourself’ experience for someone who had no idea how much she still had to learn about the world. If it is indeed true that the real journey is within, then journeying with Ezrah has taken me vastly, vastly farther than I’d ever gone before.



Speed kills. So does delay.

A Bangalorean shared this observation recently: “Bangalore may have world-class medical care, but God Forbid I ever have a cardiac incident. I’ll die before the ambulance can get to the hospital.”

A three-year-old girl in Lagos did die on the way to the hospital recently, as shared in this sad tale by the man who attempted to drive her and her parents from their neighborhood to the hospital three kilometers — about an hour’s drive — away.  (That statement assumes that the act of going a mile-and-a-half an hour can really be called “driving.”) The story is a little hard to decipher if you’re not intimately familiar with Lagos (I ain’t) but there’s nothing hard to understand about the horror of being stuck in megacity traffic as your child struggles for life beside you. (And you thought heading for a staff meeting on southbound IH-35 was rough.) The father ended up getting out and running. He didn’t make it.

In what is perhaps an apt metaphor for the transportation future of megacities, abandoning your car is not an unknown strategy in Lagos.  Want more depressing Lagos horror stories? The Atlantic recently did a nice piece on what is fast becoming the world’s favorite slo-mo disaster.