Metro systems and the changing Indian city

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

ScreenHunter_10 Dec. 12 08.52One of the first things I do when visiting a new city is to look at a map of the subway, if the city has one. The intimacy this brings is in many ways misleading (I will have learnt nothing about individual places) but from this I get not just a list of places but also some practical way of getting from one to the other. In some way the subway lines act as a scaffolding upon which to conceive of the space of the city. Metro lines and stations inhabit their space in a tangible fixed way, a way in which the more fluid bus routes and stops don't. And metros convert distance into time and reachability quite directly, unlike most other forms of city travel, where traffic, roads and quirks of geography mean that distances on a map don't necessarily correspond to travel times.

Of course the formalization that is created by and with a metro system changes both subjects and cities. Some of these changes stem from sets of administrative procedures, ranging from solutions to coordination problems (ticket buying; turnstiles; standing in lines) to the more arbitrary attempts at creating particular sorts of modern citizens (I remember reading that the Delhi metro employs people to make sure riders don't squat down on the floor instead of standing or sitting on the seats). And metros formalize space too, moving a city of capricious unpredictable neighborhoods, whose relationships to each other are founded primarily on social history and daily routine, towards a set of points laid out geographically. Or rather, towards a set of points laid out on a particular map, on a particular geography.

For most of the time I lived in Bangalore I never looked at a map of the city. I navigated along particular routes, with particular end-points, and the mental map of the city I had was patched together from these routes, without preferred spatial orientation or cardinal directions, and was made up of a series of relationships between a set of local maps rather than a single background space. In this I was quite typical. Most of the inhabitants navigate this way (as you realize if you ask for directions, especially to somewhere outside the neighborhood) and I think this is true of most third-world cities without well-organized and easily accessible public transportation.

As I grew a little older, I realized I lived in the east of the city and that the places I went to lay in a few geographic clusters. But for the most part, this knowledge was academic. The city is not very walkable, and practical routes between places don't obviously correspond to straight lines on a map. The general outline of the city vaguely helped me while traveling in buses (when I finally started taking them), but the route map is complicated and variable, and the buses appear and disappear and are often late or distracted, so I did what everyone else did and figured out buses to take by asking other people, either on or off the bus. My movements were between pairs of points or neighborhoods and, since the stops on the buses weren't announced, the intervening space was unmeasured and unmarked (a parade of changing and incommensurable window-framed scenes). Going to a new place (picking a new pair of points) meant multiple conversations, from finding the bus to deciding when to leave it.

Even the autorickshaws (the three-wheeled scooter/car hybrid called tuk-tuks in some places), the equivalents of taxis, are somewhat route and place specific. Getting a ride in an autorickshaw involves telling the driver where you want to go and him deciding whether or not to take you (it helps if it lies on his way or is otherwise convenient). For some routes, getting an auto is easy; for others, you might have to spend quite some time asking around before finding one who wants to go your way.

All this conspires to make traveling between one pair of neighborhoods different from traveling between another pair. You might have a much harder time finding autorickshaw drivers willing to go there, or need to look in different places. You'd take a different set of buses, with different frequencies of travel and, more importantly, different whimsies. You'd need to figure out where to get off. And, in general, there's more room for negotiated informal agreements of all sorts. Many of these were quite charming, as with a friend of mine, who had conductors hold the bus for him after school and would occasionally force friendly bus drivers to make unscheduled stops to pick him up by stepping out into the road in front of the bus and holding up his hand; or as with another friend, who'd convince autorickshaw drivers to let him share the driver's seat and take over driving.

It's still early to say this, but watching as metro maps start to appear across India is somewhat startling and a bit disconcerting, and it is one of the most obvious signs of a changing country and landscape1. It used to be that landing in a new Indian city meant figuring out a whole series of new ways of making sense of place, and you'd navigate with a combination of advice from friends and helpful locals. And the ways of getting around were different between cities and different between neighborhoods. This is still the case, for the most part. But the cities are starting to fill up with formally designated locations, and parts of the cities are becoming fungible and defined, interchangeable in terms of transport and transparent to an outsider in ways that they weren't before. And this coincides with much greater internal migration, which has led to its own series of standardizations, often reluctant (for example, bus conductors in Bangalore seem much more willing to speak in Hindi now).

Bangalore recently opened the first half of the first line of a metro after the usual set of delays and blind alleys, accusations of corruption and broken hearts, and I often wonder how this will change my experience of the city and how it will change the geographical pictures I hold in my mind. Certainly this is a slow and ongoing process and, at the moment, its influence is small. But as the routes start to proliferate and as the names of stations start to creep onto the map, I imagine all the old segregated ways of getting to places, and all those patchy, sometimes incompatible maps blending together. The city I visit now is every year less of the city I used to know, and this will be one of the most dramatic changes in the way space is organized. The construction of these formal maps recalls the old behaviorist debate about how animals navigate mazes: do they do it based on simple association and conditioning, or do they form abstract mental representations of space? Except here a mixture of associations and incomplete and varied local representations are being replaced by an externalized and standard global representation.

It is hard to actively mourn the vanishing of the fragmented city, at least in this case. Much of Bangalore's local neighborhood charm and the pleasures of the place-tied personal relationships of travel have been submerged under a sea of traffic and crowds, and the modes of travel of a cluster of interconnected villages are increasingly unworkable in a large cosmopolitan city. But we are also witnessing the beginning of the unraveling of a whole tapestry of negotiations, conversations and relationships, and they will vanish increasingly quickly. And new possibilities of movement, once built, almost immediately take on the aura of permanence, especially if they shape interactions around them, and then what came before quickly slides into unreality and the dim recesses of collective memory.

Ultimately the changes that will happen can only be vaguely gestured at. We can guess at the outline of a narrative – formalization, rationalization, part Weber and part Foucault – but cities change and flow around structures as they form, in ways that are still complex and contingent and unpredictable, and our cities echo our selves in finally being opaque to us. And, of course, we will never escape negotiated conversations and relationships; they will be replaced by other, differently structured ones. But however this unfolds, in a decade the landscape of the Indian cities (the ways we move around them and the ways we conceive of them) will be dramatically different and the geography of today will seem unreal.

1About a half-dozen metro systems are under construction and a number more are planned.