BENGALURU — In a small road that used to see little to no traffic, a line of cars is waiting impatiently in a traffic jam. Asim Sheikh is a real estate entrepreneur sitting in a Honda City. One car behind him, is Priyalika Jain, a student, and her friend Anaya Kumar, in a Maruti WagonR hired from Uber. Behind them is Dr. Risha Dash, in a Toyota Etios which was also booked from Uber, and behind her is me, in a Tata Indica booked on Ola. We all have two things in common — destinations HSR Layout, and a traffic jam near Haralur, where the rapid urbanisation of Bengaluru has overwhelmed the road that's barely two lanes wide.
The reason we are here, stuck in a narrow bylane, is because of map apps.
In what is becoming an ever more common problem, as the main roads get more and more crowded, map apps are guiding users into side lanes and once-quiet alleyways have turned into traffic-jammed thoroughfares.
For people who aren't familiar with the cities they move to for jobs, maps have been a life saver, but for the people living along these short-cuts, their neighbourhood has turned into a highway.
There are a number of different apps - from the relatively less-used ones like Apple Maps which all iPhone users have on their phones, to popular apps like Waze, which relies on crowdsourced data, to Google Maps, which you'll find on all Android phones.
Google uses a mix of real time data and historical data to tell you where traffic is, and how much time you'll take to make it to your destination, and it's remarkably good at making this calculation. But it's not just finding the best routes for you - it's doing this for everybody, and that means that the side lanes and small roads that used to see a handful of cars are now suddenly treated like busy thoroughfares.
The Map is the Message
Map data is at the heart of a lot of modern services: Food deliveries, cabs, location-sharing on Whatspp, and ecommerce.
"We offer solutions tailored for ridesharing and asset tracking companies. Taxi aggregators and ridesharing companies can embed the Google Maps navigation experience directly into their apps to optimize the driver and customer experience," said Anal Ghosh, Program Manager, Google Maps in India. "Our asset tracking offering helps businesses improve efficiencies by locating vehicles and assets in real-time, visualizing where assets have traveled, and routing vehicles with complex trips."
Google has also been collaborating with traffic authorities in Indian cities to incorporate planned and unplanned disruptions into Google Maps, and this information can also be used to manage congestion.
The cab drivers we spoke to said they weren't always familiar with the roads close to where a pick-up or drop was, so unless they relied on maps, your taxi rides would become a lot harder.
"I'm from near Mysore, I moved here this year and have started driving, by now I know the main roads," said Manjunath P, who drives for Uber. "But once I get into the last three-four kilometers before someone's pick-up or drop-off, I have no idea where to go. If the map tells me to go into this street, that's where I'm going unless you tell me not to do that."
An Ola driver, Shanmugham A., said he's more familiar with Central Bengaluru, but when a pick-up comes for the more far-flung parts of town, he can't be picky. "If it wasn't for the map on Ola, I would not have been able to do my job," he said.
Spreading the Jam
Sumathi Raghavan, who lives in Sobha Classic on Harlur Road used to cross the road to buy plants for her balcony garden, but finds the once quiet road now filled with cars. "We used to walk a lot, but these days I stick to our side of the road only, it's not safe to try and cross," she said.
Anand Gupta, a programmer who moved to Bengaluru fifteen years ago, says he's witnessed a steady change in his own locality of Koramangala. The techie, who launched his own AI startup last year out of his home in Sector 4 said that he's now realising just how congested Koramangala gets even during off-peak hours. "When I first moved here it was empty, there was nobody at all," he said.
"The companies started coming ten years ago, but it was still pretty empty, and everyone just hit the road and drove to Central Bangalore [Bengaluru]. But these days Koramangala has become huge, everyone goes there, and even HSR is becoming very busy, lots of offices coming up," Gupta added. "And once the main road got filled up with cars, everyone started to get routed to the bylanes, and so now even when you're sitting in my house, which is not on one of the main roads, you're still hearing cars honking throughout the day."
Writing in Mint, technology consultant Siddharth Pai also talked about having the same experience in his Central Bengaluru neighbourhood, lamenting how the street he grew up playing cricket on is now unusable without a car. "In today's choking traffic, simply trying to cross the same thoroughfare on foot means throwing one's life to chance."
"Real-time updates to traffic congestion now find their way on to apps such as Google Maps and this information is then used by the programme to re-route traffic through quieter areas," he added.
It's also worth pointing out that many of the people affected are the ones least likely to be heard. While the upper-middle class techies of Bengaluru live in gated colonies with inner roads where their children can play, people living nearby are not so lucky. For people living in Iblur village, who work in the multistory apartments of nearby HSR Layout and Sarjapura road, the influx of cars into their once quiet lanes is a major change, as the narrow lanes can barely hold two vehicles side by side. There are no public parks nearby, and the children learn to weave through traffic, whether at play, or when they're walking to school nearby.
Manjunath Swamy, a tea stall owner in Iblur, says that even five years ago, almost no cars turned past the main road. "These days, it's become a very busy road because it can be used to bypass the Ring Road signal," he said. "So now cars keep coming because the main road is always a jam."
And since the roads themselves are narrow, these jam-avoiding strategies can often get clogged up themselves. Minor road works or a truck making a delivery, that can block off a narrow road that usually didn't see this kind of traffic.
Google's data has been used by other government departments to help with planning or to improve access to information for citizens.
"Last year, we teamed up with the Calcutta State Transport Corporation, to add real-time information about bus arrival times for Kolkata on Google Maps. This was the first real-time transit information available on Google Maps in India," said Ghosh from Google. "We have also partnered with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) on the PM's flagship program - Swachh Bharat Mission - to bring public toilets online on Google Maps in more than 200 cities."
Uber also has a program called Movement where it aims to use the traffic data it has gathered to help reduce travel time.
"In Delhi, Movement data was used to calculate the impact of festivals like Dhanteras on travel times. The data hints at potential solutions to incentivize commuters to travel outside the PM peak on this day to smoothen overall travel times," Uber said. A similar study of Mumbai showed the impact of the construction of the Mrinal Tai Gore flyover in 2016, which showed a reduction of 30 percent in travel times around the area. This kind of information can be used to plan future changes with greater data at hand.
Movement shows Uber's anonymised data can be used by urban planners to redefine the landscape.
"Data collected from millions of Uber rides that people use every day to get around the cities whether for work or point-to-point connectivity is a valuable tool to address problems city officials and urban planners encounter when they're forced to make key, transformational infrastructure decisions without access to all of, or the proper information about actual conditions and causes," Uber added.