Technology, History, and Travel

Category: Transportation (Page 3 of 5)

The stick-shift minivan

A Toyota Innova crossing the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai (Bombay).

A Toyota Innova crossing the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai (Bombay).

In the USA, manual transmission or shift-shift automobiles are so uncommon that I make a comment whenever I get into a friend’s car that has a manual transmission. When automatic transmissions first started to sell in large numbers in the American market in the 1950s, manual transmissions became known as “standard transmission,” because automatic transmissions were more expensive and therefore comparatively uncommon. Nowadays, though, cars with automatic transmissions dominate the American roads so much that manual transmissions are no longer the market standard.

The introduction of automatic transmissions in the United States was one step in the de-skilling of driving. Other steps in the process have been the introduction of electric starters and, much later, GPS navigation. Driving is still a skill in the United States, but thanks in part to these technological changes, the learning curve is shallower now than it was before World War II.

Driving has been less de-skilled in India than in the United States. This does not mean that driving on Indian roads is more difficult than in America, although from my limited experience with driving in India I can say that is definitely the case. What I mean by this is that learning to drive is a steeper learning curve in India, and a greater portion of the drivers on the road are professionals. This is gradually changing, as more and more middle-class people are buying their own cars and driving them themselves. But the portion of professional drivers on the road in India is still much higher than in the United States, where the majority of drivers are amateurs.1

Partly because driving has been less de-skilled in India, automatic transmissions have never caught on.2 I have been told that cars with automatic transmissions exist in India, but I have certainly never seen one, after having spent the better part of two years in the country. The absolute dominance of manual transmissions has led to some unusual (from an American perspective) technological hybrids. My favorite is the Toyota Innova, a stick-shift minivan.

Minivans originated in the United States, with the first model, the Dodge Caravan, released in 1984.3 In the USA in the 1990s, minivans were the ultimate family car. As vehicles designed for busy moms and dads, minivans of course all had automatic transmissions. They also had plenty of space for kids and carseats, and absolutely zero sex appeal.

In India, minivans do not suffer from the same stigma of un-coolness. The Toyota Innova is the most common minivan on the Indian roads.4 Like every other car I have ever seen in India, Innovas all have manual transmissions. I suppose there must be some Indian soccer moms who haul their kids around in Innovas, but I have not encountered any. Most Innovas I have seen are not private cars. There are plenty of Innova taxis in the big cities. The Delhi Police have had Innovas outfitted with flashing lights, and they use these as interceptors. I have even heard that Indian-made Innovas have been exported to Afghanistan, where the US military used them – despite the confusion of driving on the right side of the road in a vehicle built to drive on the left.

  1. This is a general observation I have made, although I have no numbers to back up my claim. In Kolkata (Calcutta) in May of this year, I tried making a tally of vehicles with yellow license plates (commercial vehicles, including taxis) versus vehicles with white plates (private vehicles). The traffic was moving much too fast for an accurate count, but it appeared that private vehicles predominated slightly. Of course, not all of the private vehicles are driven by amateurs, as it is not uncommon for car owners to hire chauffeurs to do the driving for them. The portion of public and private vehicles on the road also varies in different parts of the country. Private vehicles are more common in the wealthier cities, but public vehicles predominate in poorer rural areas. []
  2. Another market where manual transmissions dominate is western Europe, although likely for different reasons. []
  3. The Smithsonian Institution has determined that the Dodge Caravan is historically significant. When the “America on the Move” gallery opened in 2003, it included a real early-model Caravan stuck in simulated Los Angeles freeway traffic. []
  4. Wikipedia identifies the Innova as a “compact multipurpose vehicle” rather than a minivan, but I do not make this distinction. []

Riding the Delhi Metro

On my first visit to New Delhi, in 2009, my parents and I stayed in a hotel within walking distance of the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg station on the blue line of the Delhi Metro. At this station, the blue line still runs above ground, but this is the last elevated station before the line plunges underground. One of the first times my parents and I rode the Metro was on a Saturday morning. We climbed the stairs from street level to the station, bought RF-ID metrocards with value stored on them, went through a quick security check that made sure we weren’t carrying any guns or bombs, and then climbed the rest of the way to the platform level. When we got to the platform, there were only a few people milling around, waiting for the next train. As minutes passed, the platform slowly but steadily filled up with people, until there was a crowd of hundreds standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the platform.

The train had better be empty, I thought, because there is a trainfull of people standing here on the platform.

At last, the train arrived, and as it pulled up to the platform I saw that it was already packed full of people. The train slowed to a halt, the doors opened with a ding, and all at once the crowd on the station platform surged into the train. My parents and I had no choice but to go along. As we crossed the threshold and stepped into the coach, other people pressing in on us from all directions, I had a brief moment of panic. This is where I die, I thought, trampled to death in the Delhi Metro.

I am happy to report that I did not die while boarding the blue line. I did not even suffer any physical harm. Somehow, the bodies already in the coach managed to compress and make room for all the bodies that had been standing on the station platform. Once everybody was inside, the doors shut and we were off. As we pulled away from the station, a young man next to me started chatting with me and asked if he could take a photo with me (and the forty other people standing in close proximity with us) with his mobile phone. He told me that there was a fair today, and that explained why there were so many people riding the Metro on a Saturday.

When the Delhi Metro opened in 2002, it became the newest and sleekest addition to Delhi’s public transportation infrastructure, joining buses, local trains, Ambassador and Maruti taxis, autorickshaws, and cycle rickshaws. Each electric-traction Metro train consists of four, six, or eight coaches built by Bombardier, which have benches along the sides of the interior and plenty of standing room in the middle. The Indian broad-gauge lines of the Metro radiate out from the city center, covering the National Capital Territory and stretching out into the two adjoining states, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The biggest station is Rajiv Chowk, where the blue and yellow lines meet. The station is built under the center of the circular shopping district Connaught Place in the British-planned part of the city. Whenever I have been to Rajiv Chowk, it has always been busy, with long queues waiting on the platforms for the two lines.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has had to socialize the population of Delhi to use the Metro, because subways are a technology that originated in the West during the Industrial Revolution and can only be adapted so much to Indian culture and conditions. Announcements piped over the station intercoms in Hindi and English (the Delhi Metro is totally bilingual) remind passengers boarding the train to allow other passengers to disembark first. Posters in the stations masquerade as fun trivia but really take part in the socialization as well: “Did you know? 95% of all passengers cooperate with CISF [Central Industrial Security Force] personnel during security checks.” I have a strong suspicion that this is part of the proverbial 40% of statistics that are made up.

The socialization has worked to some extent, but still not everybody follows the instructions for the security checks and it is common for passengers to shove into a coach while others are trying to disembark. Getting onto a train can be challenging, and getting off equally so, as you have to shove past passengers who are not getting off at the same station as you. For the most part, though, other passengers are courteous, asking you to make side if they are getting of before you, or helping to eject you from the train when you have reached your stop.

Fares on the Delhi Metro generally range from Rs. 9 to Rs. 21, which in US currency is 15¢ to 35¢. Most of the passengers I have seen on the trains appear to be businesspeople, students, or government servants, although tickets are cheap enough that working-class people can afford to ride too. In recent years, there has been plenty of infrastructural development in the Delhi area that has been for the privileged classes only, such as shopping malls where the guards at the doors are instructed to turn away anybody who appears working-class. The Delhi Metro, on the other hand, is for the aam aadmi (common people).

A later addition to the Delhi Metro system is the Airport Express Line; it opened in 2013. It runs from the suburb of Dwarka to New Delhi Railway Station in just 25 minutes. Unlike the main lines, the airport line is almost never crowded, and I have gotten a seat every time I have ridden on it. (On the main line, I almost never get a seat.) This speed and convenience comes at a higher ticket price: Rs. 90 or $1.50 for a one-way trip. This hasn’t stopped commuters who live in the suburbs from using the express line, in addition to the jet-setters for whom the line was ostensibly built.

I can’t help but be enamored by the Delhi Metro. It makes getting around the city so much easier. New Delhi was inaugurated 69 years before the Delhi Metro opened, and the history of civilization in the area goes back at least three thousand years before that. But for me, Delhi wouldn’t be Delhi without the Metro.

Camels at work

A camel passes by Surajpol, one of Jaipur’s seven original city gates.

A camel passes by Surajpol, one of Jaipur’s seven original city gates.

In his book The Camel and the Wheel, Richard W. Bulliet explores a curious problem in the history of technology: why much of the medieval Islamic world stopped using wheels, and instead transported goods on the backs of camels.1 Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did wheeled vehicles return to some parts of the Islamic world that had abandoned them centuries earlier. Bulliet argues that the reason for the switch from wheels to camels was economic: camels were low-cost, low-maintenance, all-terrain animals. Pack camels were suitable for transport in all parts of the Islamic world, even in the former Roman empire where the old roads were deteriorating.

In some places, pack camels never supplanted wheeled carts; rather, camels were pressed into service pulling carts. One of these places was Islamic India east of the Indus River (now parts of Pakistan and India). Unlike other parts of the Islamic world, India always had wheels.

Camels still haul loads in parts of western India. In Jaipur, camel carts share the streets with mechanized forms of transport such as motorcycles, cars, and autorickshaws. In narrow alleyways of the eighteenth-century Old City, camel carts sometimes cause infuriating traffic jams.

Jaipur’s camel carts are a blend of technologies from different parts of the world, during different time periods. Although most of the carts appear to be build out of wood, all of them sport pneumatic tires borrowed from trucks or some other type of motor vehicle. Pneumatic tires first appeared in Britain in the late nineteenth century, where they were originally used on bicycles. These tires are suited for the paved roads of a modern city. In contrast to the tires, the camels are harnessed by an adaptation of a saddle design that originated in northern Arabia at some point between the years 500 and 100 BC.2

  1. Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975). []
  2. Ibid., 87, 189-90. []

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