Soapbox Post

We often forget that technologies are more than just a bundle of metal, gears and electronics. To provide us with any benefits, machines have to be woven into our practices and daily lives. There are few technologies that exemplify this better than the automobile. Sure we have to know how to turn the wheel and stomp the accelerator, but mechanical movements are but a small part of driving.

In the United States, we’ve been working for over a hundred years to figure out how to safely integrate automobile travel into our society. We’ve built dirt roads, paved them, and constructed interstate highways to give cars easy access to more places. But just as important, we’ve created a system of practices, laws and norms that tell drivers how to behave. We have speed limits to lower the incidence of crashes, streets designated as one-way to improve traffic flow, lines down the center of roads to allow vehicles to travel safely in two directions on the same patch of asphalt, and signs to warn us when we’re entering a school zone. We know to move over a lane to let other vehicles merge onto highways, and we know to pull over when we see flashing lights behind us. All of these little rules and norms have developed over time and now form a complex system designed to increase the chances that we will drive safely and efficiently to our destinations.

One way to remind ourselves of all the work that goes into creating and maintaining a complex technological system like automobility is to visit a place that does it differently. The video clip posted here is a two-minute drive through the streets of Jaipur, India in a “tuc-tuc” (also known as an auto-rickshaw), a three-wheeled open vehicle powered by a scooter engine.

(More text follows below video.)

(click 'play' to start video)

At first glance, the traffic in this scene looks like a chaos of honking cars, speeding bicyclists and running cattle. In fact, the entire process of moving down the street is carefully ordered – but it is a very different system than that in the United States and many other countries.

For instance, drivers in the United States honk when they think another driver is doing something wrong. In India, they honk to let other vehicles know they are coming through. Some bus and tuc-tuc owners even paint “please honk” on the back of their vehicles to encourage others to warn them before they pass. Another major difference is that traffic in India moves in ebbs and flows rather than in a “conveyer belt” fashion. Your goal as a driver is to get the nose of your vehicle ahead of the others. When you do, you immediately have the right of way and are allowed to cruise past the others. In the United States, this would likely be seen as rude and inefficient. In India, it is the agreed upon custom for driving through city streets – one that tells individuals how to behave.

To make room for new technologies, we often choose to reorder our lives, sometimes in very significant ways. We usually do this because we think the benefits of the technology are very valuable. But all too often, some people or practices suffer as a result. As different as the rules of the road are in the United States and India, their development has made the life of pedestrians in both countries much more difficult.

City streets used to be a place for people to walk, congregate and play. In the United States, we’ve banished pedestrians to sidewalks to make it safer for automobiles to travel quickly. We give them some right to slow down traffic in crosswalks, but our entire system of transportation is designed to benefit drivers. Increasingly, this is true in India as well. While the traffic you see in this video is frightening, the pedestrians in the city at least are familiar with cars and adjust accordingly. As better roads are being built into rural areas, faster and faster cars are speeding past villagers whose primary mode of transport is their own feet. One result is that there are several times more fatalities per vehicle in India than in such countries as the United States and the United Kingdom.

The increases in automobiles and roads in India almost certainly will help promote economic growth and bring people closer together. But when we integrate new technologies into our daily lives, we make important decisions about how we will relate to other people, who will reap the benefits and who will bear the costs.

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