Indian roads reflect the amazing diversity that is India, a mix of the modern and the ancient. It is as if a cross-section of the entire history of transportation were displayed for all to marvel at. A huge mass of humanity using every conceivable mode of transportation — from no-wheelers to two-wheelers (powered and otherwise) to three-wheelers to four-wheelers to sixteen-wheelers — moves along at varying speeds on what apparently are roads. I say moves but at times the whole mass merely sits there for hours. That is what happened during one stage of my journey from Mumbai to Pune last week.
As the crow flies, it is not very far. About 100 miles or so. Half that distance is served by a new 6-lane toll expressway. The journey should take about 2 hours but I estimate the average time to be more like 4 hours. Last week it took us about 5 and a half hours. We were within a few kilometers of taking the expressway when we got stuck in a huge traffic jam. The traffic was stalled for as far as one could see. Running low on gas, we decided to take a short detour.
As it turned out, a few thousand other people also decided to take the detour and we ended up stuck at an intersection which was gridlocked. Trucks, cars, two-wheelers, buses, people, auto-rickshaws, people — everyone — was at an almost standstill because at that 4-way intersection, vehicles had moved in and there was no way for anyone to move an inch in any direction. After a while I lost my patience and got out of the car and walked to the intersection. Along with a few other people, I ended up spending about an hour trying to sort out the mess. It was hot, dirty, exhausting, exhaust pollution-laden work. How I wished that Indians had figured out the utility of STOP signs.
I have traveled a bit around the world and one thing you find in pretty much most of the world are those octagonal red stop signs. They are passive devices that regulate traffic. They are not high-tech. They don’t require electricity to operate nor high-technology to manufacture. I have seen them in lots of places. Except in India. India does not have STOP signs.
Consider this. Indians do use cars — from cheapo 800-cc tinpots to huge SUVs to Mercedes Benzes. But Indian roads don’t have STOP signs. It is a mystery till one realizes that STOP signs are not private goods while cars are. Because of missing public goods — and stop signs are just one of the many missing public goods — private goods are less usable in India. It is worth exploring the welfare loss arising from the lack of public goods in an economy. For now, let’s estimate the cost which could have been avoided if they had a bunch of stop signs at that intersection and if the users had had the sense to keep the intersection clear.
I estimate that a thousand vehicles and four thousand people idled for about 2 hours. About a thousand litres of fuel and eight thousand man-hours were lost. Valuing a man-hour at $2 and a liter of fuel at $1 and adding something for the increased pollution, around $20,000 were lost. Ours was not the only traffic jam in the country that day. All across India, thousands of avoidable traffic jams occur every day. Many of them could be avoided if there were stop signs and if people figured out what they meant and behaved accordingly. Assuming that on average an Indian on the road spends an extra hour stuck in traffic, here are the numbers. Number on the road each day: 50 million (5 percent of population.) Total man-hours lost: 50 million. Using a conservative $1 as the value of a man-hour, estimated cost of traffic jams is $50 million per day. Between $15 and $20 billion is the loss over the year.
Twenty billion here, twenty billion there, and soon you will be talking real money. There have to be hundreds of other small leakages in the huge economic system that is India, each bleeding the economy in apparently trivial ways. And when they are all added up, we find that India is an astonishingly poor immensely populated third world country. Which makes me conclude that
If you don’t have STOP signs on your roads that have millions of vehicles on them, you might be a third world country.