The best time to drive in New Delhi is at dawn or, even better, around 7am. By then the last of the trucks that cross the city during the night are halted at roadside restaurants with the drivers sipping scalding tea and eating fried parathas and eggs, and there is a short period before the traffic builds up.
New Delhi’s urban sprawl is now so extensive that entire satellite cities, where several million people live, have disappeared into the mass of the metropolis. Gurgaon, the new town to the south, is still separated by a thin belt of scrubby grassland, but Noida, the vast development to the east, is, to all intents and purposes, part of the city. If these satellites are included, the city’s population probably touches 25 million. This is set to increase further as economic growth sucks in villagers from across the country.
Girdling the city’s old core is a ring road — an unplanned set of linked chunks of carriageway widened over three decades. Over nearly two years, I have learned to respect, if not necessarily appreciate, its rhythms. Like the city itself, it changes character through the day and night.
At 7am, in the cooler, clearer morning, driving over the crumbling flyovers, there is relative calm. You can look in one direction and see the pristine marble-tiled dome of the tomb of the Muslim Mughal emperor Humayun.
In the other, the modern forms of a Bahai temple marks the horizon. Kites and crows wheel overhead. Dogs forage in the rubbish at the roadside. A few auto-rickshaws putter straight down the center of the three- or four-lane carriageway, not much faster than the bicycles ridden by the night-watchmen returning from their shift.
By 9am this (relatively) bucolic vision is long gone. In 2008, a government report announced that the ring road had reached capacity with 110,000 vehicles a day and predicted the total would reach 150,000 cars, trucks, buses and bikes by the end of the decade. In fact, continuing economic growth, the new middle class’s demand for cars and the parlous, if improving, public transport system has meant even more vehicles than feared. Some estimates are as high as 200,000. As “lane driving” is seen as an odd, foreign practice, the result is gridlock.
However, this gridlock evolves. The buses are slightly less empty mid-morning, then refill with schoolchildren and students. The dreaded privately owned Blueline buses, badly maintained and driven as fast as possible to maximize profits, have gone. Those that have replaced them are marginally better, but still often flatten small cars and motorbikes. There is an opening around 2pm when the traffic eases, but by 5pm, the ring road is a strip of snarling, grinding vehicles.
The buses, now with passengers packed against doors and windows, loom like ships full of refugees above a choppy sea of jerking cars. The air is black with fumes. The new cars — Audis, BMWs, huge imported SUVs — sit bumper to bumper.
After rush hour, there is a lull. The day workers have gone home. The buses even have empty seats. There is a new peril however: the minivans used by call centers.hey race to get their passengers to their offices as fast as possible, hurtling up inside lanes, jinking between slower vehicles like a footballer dribbling his way through a pack of defenders.