Bangalore's traffic nightmare

BANGALORE, India — There is nothing predictable about Bangalore’s traffic, unless you count the nightmarish daily gridlocks, the work-in-progress state of the roads with their semi-complete traffic overpasses and a metro system under construction.

But now, a million workers in this teeming technology and outsourcing capital of India may have a new-found commuting savior — technology.

To help solve Bangalore's commuting conundrum the Bangalore traffic police has deployed automated video surveillance cameras, Blackberry handsets and variable message digital sign boards, and linked them all to a state-of-the-art traffic management center.

It is a robust, state-of-the-art system that could rival that of any Western city, proponents say. Now other Indian cities with similar problems, like Chennai and New Delhi, are looking to copy the system.

For more on Delhi's traffic nightmares, watch this video:

“There is a huge impact on road behavior since we brought in technology,” said Praveen Sood, additional commissioner of police who handles Bangalore’s traffic. Sood is an engineer from the premier Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and an MBA from leading management school, Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, who joined the Indian Police Service.

Sood says at traffic lights now, drivers stop their vehicles before the pedestrian crossings. Errant drivers are happy to pay penalties for traffic violations because Blackberry-wielding policemen will issue official receipts on the spot.

That's because people don’t mind paying the penalty when cops are using Blackberry devices connected via Bluetooth to printers. “It is all official and there is no stink of corruption,” said Mahendra Prasad, a software engineer who works on Lavelle Road.

Citing a real-life example, Prasad says he was caught speeding on the new road from the airport. He was tracked by a policeman’s laser gun, and presented with irrefutable evidence that included a photograph of his car and a close-up of his license plate. He paid up without demurring.

“Even villagers living on the fringes of Bangalore know that they are now being watched on live cameras and will respect red lights, pedestrian crossings and a whole lot of other rules,” said Sood.

Of course, technology cannot make up for the lack of infrastructure — bad roads, potholes and absence of bus bays. “All the gizmos in the world cannot replace good infrastructure and good road behavior, but within the constraints we are managing traffic a whole lot better,” said Sudhir Ramegowda, the police officer who manages Bangalore’s centralized Traffic Management Center.

Until only a couple of years ago, enforcement on Bangalore roads was a somewhat feeble affair consisting of wireless handset-toting policemen relaying situation updates to the traffic control room and trying to manage rush hour traffic or breakdowns on narrow, traffic-clogged roads.

Studies suggested the jobs of traffic policemen in Bangalore were so stressful that they suffer chronic migraines, asthma attacks (because of the air pollution), as well as stress and cardiac issues with the deafening honking and other noise on the city roads.

Now video surveillance cameras are tracking hundreds of major traffic junctions in the city. Software tracking mobile density on roads and traffic junctions sends updates on congestion. GPS-equipped city buses send feeds on the speed they are traveling.

A centralized traffic management center analyzes all the data so that "green time" at traffic lights can be modified. So Bangalore’s rush-hour commuters say they still contend with terrible traffic but at least traffic is crawling and not at a complete standstill.

For the first time in any Indian city, Bangalore’s traffic officers armed with Blackberry devices enforce strict rules at traffic lights and on the roads. As officers log on live databases, repeat offenders are easily tracked and penalized enhanced amounts. To boot, penalty collections have doubled since two years ago, with many offenders simply logging on to the Bangalore Traffic website and paying online.

Still, this is a city with 3.7 million vehicles on the road, and a further 1,000 new vehicles added every single day. Bangalore’s traffic is indeed a gargantuan challenge that technology alone cannot hope to solve, admits Sood.

“I dream of the day when the city’s traffic can be coordinated and managed by technology through a completely non-obtrusive system,” he said.