The design challenge called Indian traffic [2]

An earlier, admittedly ranty post documented the weirdness that is Indian traffic. Though it focused more on vehicular traffic than on pedestrians, any good traffic system design should enable peaceful co-existence of both vehicles and pedestrians.

I have spent some time thinking about traffic systems since I have been able to observe traffic in several countries outside India, especially the UK, for a few years now. I’d say it largely works well in the UK. Except when it does not, say, when we have the wrong type of snow. Roads don’t work, trains don’t work, almost nothing works.

Yet, some sincerely wonder if traffic in India can be improved to the level it is in developed countries.

Jokes apart, traffic in developed countries, when it flows, has mainly three component parts, although not all developed countries are created equal in their traffic discipline. These component parts exist in a Nash Equilibrium, which keeps the traffic flowing.

Rules

Unlike India — where most people with driving licences have done few, if any, lessons, and most driving licence owners have never been subjected to a rigorous examination of car knowledge and driving skills — it is near impossible to get a driving licence in most developed countries without passing multistage tests of road rules, car knowledge, and driving skills.

As far as I know, road rules — that would cover speed limits, lane discipline, overtaking procedures, use of indicators and other functioning lights on the vehicles, driving behaviour during egregious weather or road conditions, prioritisation of emergency vehicles, required civic behaviour during emergencies — aren’t even fully documented in India. Documenting them and then making them available in the many Indian languages would have to be the step that precedes training and testing for licensing purposes.

Licensed trainers and an incorruptible testing procedure would be the next essentials.

Then the state of the roads. It shouldn’t be down to a High Court to pronounce that citizens have a right to good roads. Because, so what?

Rule followers aka the social contract

Then comes the harder part. Of making a citizenry — of whom many are accustomed to saying “do you know who I am?” and “ok, do my work first, here is the cash!” — follow the process of learning and being tested to obtain a licence, with knowledge and humility, and not by sending someone else to get the paperwork done.

Some positive change, led by citizens themselves, is in evidence so there is hope on this count.

Enforcement and punitive measures

The third crucial part of a functioning traffic system is a traffic police force that catches, penalises and prosecutes if necessary the violations, no matter how minor, of road rules. This is helped by clear rules, along side specification of punitive measures for breaking them. This is further supported by a judicial system that lets traffic violation cases be tried swiftly instead of dragging them on for years, as Indian courts often do with many court cases.

So to return to the question, whether road traffic in India ever be improved to the level it is in developed countries, the answer is both Yes and No.

Yes, if India can arrive collectively at a new Nash Equilibrium of the above-mentioned factors.

No, if any of the above is missing.

The challenge for India is where to start.

The age of un-empathy

“My Spotify drains my phone battery”, she said.

“Do you listen to it on streaming or offline?”, I asked.

“Why, yes I do listen to it on streaming!”

“So you see both the 3G access you are using and the app itself use battery. You can see battery use by app and make choices accordingly especially when you are outside and worried you couldn’t recharge your phone.”

“How do I do that?”, she immediately wanted to know.

Cue, search through settings and battery use data on her 4 year old Samsung Android phone.

“The guys at the Samsung store didn’t help me”, she lamented.

So we opened the settings to check battery use and she was horrified.

“Where did all these apps come from? I am not using them”, she said.

“Not right now, perhaps, but they may be running in the background or operating on a pull mechanism”, I said, weakly. And clearly, unhelpfully.

We then discussed what “pull” means, what other common uses may be battery-draining, how it may be necessary to behave differently to conserve battery, how some apps more than others drain battery, and other things she now needs to know, just so she can use the technology she deems essential to her work and her outside-work life.

There were several such moments, as I helped this 65 year old friend of mine. She needs to get to grips with some essential technology tools and social media as she works on taking her business global.

The detail about her age and her business are material here lest the rest of this reflection should get drowned in the assumptions that just because she is older, she is not “smart enough” or “compos mentis”.

She isn’t the first among my over-55 friends whom I have recently helped with their technology and social media needs. Phones and social networks all play a key role.

It is soon clear that much of the technology design has forgotten technology also serves our ageing population at hand.

IMF depiction of our ageing populations

Mobile phones have several non-obvious hidden access features, sometimes resistive touch screens, complicated pathways to switching off default settings on various apps and in case of Android phones, a fragmented ecosystem that confuses older users who did not cut their teeth on technology.

Social networks have arcane and complex privacy settings, light coloured buttons, light grey ellipses to access extra features, drop-down menus hidden behind little arrows, and of course, their own lingo for features.

It may even seem the ageing user is misbehaving i.e. not behaving in accordance with the designers’ expectations of their ability to make use of features they should be able to see (never mind almost universally weakening eye sight with age) or discover. Because, hey, it is so intuitive, you know!

What is wrong with this picture?

Is technology meant to exist for its own sake? Or is it meant to serve someone?

What are the design assumptions at work here? Do we care whom we are including — and whom we are excluding — by our design choices?

Can the growing numbers of ageing people be this invisible?

Post script

As she started to gather her things and prepare to leave, I said, trying to be helpful, “Of course, you could just buy a portable battery pack so you are never out of battery when you leave home.”

She put her things down and looked at me sternly, “That is now for another day, Shefaly. I cannot cope with this any more.”

Related reading:

Why I think “digital native” and “digital immigrant” typology is short-sighted and unhelpful

The design challenge called Indian traffic [1]

India’s traffic problem is real. No, seriously. Indian drivers makes Italians look tame and Londoners look like novice drivers.

(C) Image from the Hindustan Times

India also has the dubious superlative distinction of having the highest number of deaths in road accidents in the world. The government of India publishes data on road accidents which will make the most hardened person’s eyes water.

I suspect Thaler and Sunstein may weep if they saw how spectacularly any design nudge fails on Indian roads.

Lanes, what lanes? Where available at all, a three-lane main road commonly will have been made into five or six or seven chopping and changing lanes.

Traffic dividers are an easily ignored suggestion, not a design element to separate streams of traffic by direction. Most dividers sooner or later find themselves broken to create illegitimate U-turns for vehicles. No prizes for guessing what this does to vehicular traffic flow! But hey, don’t get upset. Keep your hair on — that car or truck coming at you in the opposite direction is on the wrong side of the road indeed. You need to act and save your vehicle and yourself.

Then there are roundabouts. In normal circumstances, in areas with higher vehicular than pedestrian traffic, roundabouts are more efficient than traffic lights, in keeping traffic moving. Not in India. There seems to be no priority for anyone. Everyone enters it as and when and the space is negotiated (sometimes not). And pedestrians try and cross junctions in the middle of that traffic.

Since I mentioned traffic lights, I feel duty-bound to point out that almost nobody respects traffic lights, especially red lights. It would appear red lights are mere suggestions! Indeed a friend stopped at a red light only to be told off by a driver: “You stopped at a red light? Why?”. One morning, at 7am, a state transport corporation bus nearly rammed into my car because it was trying to turn right on a red light, while my car was turning right on a green light. There but for the grace of who-knows-what go I!

The corollary to that behaviour at traffic lights is this shorthand used by many:

Green – Go. Amber – Go Faster. Red – Go if you like.

Many traffic lights now use timers. Contrary to the design intent, the times serve as an excuse for speeding or revving. Putting timers on lights to show how many seconds to red or to green has only had the effect of turning everyone into Mad Max, either speeding through or revving, depending on whether the light is about to turn red or green.

Then there is the non-use — perhaps non-awareness — of car features.

Hardly anyone uses car indicators to indicate whether they intend to turn or intend to move left or bright. Particularly if you see a driver/ rider on your left, revving while you are waiting at a red light as is customary, you can be certain even before the light changes fully he/ she will cut across in front of you to turn, of course, right! Or not. But the trick is you will not know till you start to move.

Many cars have their side mirrors either absent, or permanently folded to prevent them from breaking. Cars often move past each other at a distance smaller than the width of a side mirror so there is a finite chance of the side mirror breaking. But the effect of no-side-mirror on driving is anyone’s guess.

How about flashing lights? People driving from opposite directions in a narrow street flash their lights at each another. The translation? “I am here, make way for me”. People also flash lights at the drivers ahead of them. Same translation.

People honk constantly — not to draw attention to their presence in case another driver makes a sudden move. But to indicate “I am here, make way for me”. Sometimes people honk in stand-still traffic. That is totally incomprehensible, but then again, what about the list so far is comprehensible?

Lax laws mean seat belts are compulsory only in the front. At the back therefore, most car makers oblige by hanging seat belt straps, but no plugs to plug them into. Not good for passengers in the back seat.

Finally there is this.

The driving chaos does make one’s heart stop for a moment, when an ambulance with flashing lights and sirens is waiting to be given way. Nobody does — indeed can, for where does the traffic move after making three lanes into five or six or seven — give way. I was told that there are many, who paint fake ambulance signage and use flashing lights and sirens to get ahead. The result is that now nobody believes it is a real ambulance. Such “enterprise” and non-standard signage means you really can’t tell if a vehicle is in non-ambulance use or for real.

The distrust of the fellow citizen, whether driver or pedestrian, is evident wherever we look. Combined with a poverty mindset, that makes zero-sum thinking the default and that imbues every action with selfishness with no regard whatsoever for the larger societal impact of one person’s choices, this distrust makes for a lethal combination on Indian roads.

How, if at all, can design address the great Indian traffic conundrum?

Short, flippant answer would say, with difficulty, and over a very long period of time.

Why? Well, that is the next post.

Luxury’s other heritage challenge

“You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”

This well-known Patek Philippe tag line tells its customers that the brand’s heritage could be part of their own as they bequeath their Patek timepieces to their future generations.

Patek Philippe Generation Ad campaign

One can, of course, buy pre-owned Patek Philippe time pieces from dealers, or at auctions where the brand commands huge prices, which Patek no doubt monitors. The presence of complete documentation, including owner history and service records, adds to the heritage angle, hence the price tag. Patek also supports collectors’ clubs and offers to service any Patek, no matter what its journey to the present owner has been.

Brands such as Vacheron Constantin engage actively with not just the customers, who already own their watches but also those, who aspire to own a Vacheron timepiece one day.

That said, there are brands, who do not really do much for, or with, collectors.

Hermès comes to mind.

While active in developing, protecting and promoting its own brand image, Hermès famously does not support collectors’ clubs. There is still a brisk trade in second-hand Hermès scarves, bags and other artifacts. It is often difficult to verify if these goods are authentic or counterfeit, or even stolen (although the latter may be rarer).

Most established luxury brands’ own stories focus on the brand heritage. It is fascinating — and puzzling — however to see how little luxury brands do to honour (track?) how their customers create a story about these brands, steeping the luxury goods in their own family’s heritage.

This is a missed opportunity.

To create a luxury brand with longevity beyond the next season has to go beyond the brand extolling its own heritage. The stories that live on have to make sense, and be meaningful to those, who own and wear the products created by that brand.

And while everyone can participate in the democratic medium of the web, oral traditions and stories of familial heritage can still help preserve exclusivity for luxury brands, most of whom are still struggling to make up their mind on the matter.

Indeed one has to ask whether the idea of a heritage driven European brand of luxury has economic viability now that most of their growth is coming from Asian countries, many of whom boast a rich heritage going further back than any European brands!

Can lazy — even arrogant — brand marketing as luxury marques, reliant on their European heritage legacy, do now continue?

Don’t mind me though!

I have a simple curiosity.

I am just keen to hear from someone, whose family bought Hermès equestrian gear and riding equipment 300 years ago, and who is still wearing Hermès couture or carrying Hermès bags today.

(Thanks to Barbara Houdayer for the Twitter conversation, that sparked this monograph.)

Authenticity, genuineness and the luxury brand

A friend of mine is a genuine, passionate Porsche fan. Awaken him from deep sleep and start asking him about the Porsches he has owned through the years, and you begin to see how deep his fountain of knowledge, and his genuine affection for and attachment to the brand run.

Porsche North America Welcome KitHe showed me the letter that he received with his car. The opening paragraph talks about how Porsche is an exceedingly rare breed of automobile and continues to extol its virtues as follows:

“One born in the art of hand craftsmanship, with sporting bloodlines as genuine as the exhaust note. Every Porsche we build is a monument to authenticity … and the kind of unflinching performance that transforms the daily driving routine into one of fun, freedom and pure excitement.”

In the above, the bold is mine, the ellipsis theirs.

This is how the OED defines “genuine”:

adjective
1. Truly what something is said to be; authentic:
2. (Of a person, emotion, or action) sincere:

As I sat rifling through the pristine, understated luxurious contents of the welcome boxes  — he keeps them all — the conversation turned to engine sound enhancement technologies. My friend told me about the Porsche sound symposer, an intake sound amplifier now fitted into the new 911 and the Panamera. Intake sound amplifier to them, fake engine sound enhancement technique to you and me.

I cannot speak for anyone else. But two months on from that conversation, I am still reconciling “as genuine as the exhaust note” with the “sound symposer”.

How authentic or genuine is the latter?

Is it ok to use it because customers demand a quiet cruise and yet the primal pull of the sound we have all come to recognise as the Porsche engine?

Indeed my friend’s car doesn’t have this amplifier. When I am visiting him and am at home, that engine sound is how I know he is back. To that extent the signalling effect of the Porsche brand of cars does lie in its exhaust note.

Of course, I realise that the car itself is a manufactured artifact.

Given that, does sound enhancement detract from the authenticity of the engine roar?

Or should it be seen as just another way to make the customer happy by addressing his or her changed needs, and indeed, in case of hybrid cars, a way to address the critique that their quietness is potentially hazardous on the roads?

Signalling is often of the key functions a luxury brand serves. And brands know that.

“We are not selling watches to tell the time. We’re selling them to people who belong to a certain social class, who want to show off.” — Dominique Perrin, President, Cartier (in 1987)

Luxury brands also seek to deliver a wholesome sensual experience encompassing sound, sight, smell and touch. Porsche’s sound symposer, one could argue, just serves to enhance the audio experience and the signalling function of the brand.

Are existential questions such as this surplus to the conversation about brand building, or integral to it? What then is the source of a brand’s claim to authenticity?