Planes, Trains and Auto Rickshaws: Transportation in Chennai

Think of New York City taxi drivers. Add a couple thousand motorcyclists. Sprinkle in some pedestrians and bicyclists. Oh, and don’t forget about the cows. Mix it all together and you might come close to imagining urban transportation in India.

A busy street full of cars, people, bikers, and street vendors.
Street in West Tambaram

My group and I arrived in Chennai on August 26th at 3AM. As I exited the airport and took my first steps in India, I thought to myself, “This isn’t what I expected.” The problem was I had all these ideas about what India was or wasn’t supposed to be. I knew that there were different aspects of India, the poor, the rich, the rural, the urban, the polluted, and the untouched, but walking out of the airport I found myself numb to the shock of the new culture because of the similarities I saw. The busy city night seemed familiar. The yellow lights that exposed the dark pavement brought me back to Peru, Ghana, and even Washington D.C.

The platforms at the Tambaram train station where trains stop to pick up passengers.
Tambaram Train Station

Of course, Indian culture and society remain entities of their own. However, I found myself feeling comfortable in the midst of the chaos. The hustle and bustle of city life brings back fond memories of past travels and resembles aspects of home. Throughout the week that I’ve been here, I have not had too much time to learn about urban India. Most of the knowledge I have has been absorbed through my experiences thus far, and the transportation has stuck out the most.

The transportation feels like an exaggeration of home.

In Washington D.C., traffic moves in accelerated intervals as cars swerve around stopped Ubers and taxis. Businessmen and women jet across the streets between intervals of cars rushing to their offices because the metro was delayed. Homeless people sit in the shade of buildings or on park benches begging for money.

This is not too different from Chennai. I still find myself surprised at the efficiency of the transportation here. Even though it might look chaotic, there is a method to the madness. I can’t quite figure out what that method is, but it is there. Instead of mindlessly driving assuming everyone is following the rules like in the US, people weave in and out of traffic aware of everything going on around them. It might not appear safe, but trust me, the drivers know what they are doing. People don’t tend to stay in their respective lanes or drive on the correct side of the road (which is the left), but they don’t crash into anything.  There are even cows that walk through traffic, and somehow drivers avoid them.

Cows graze on some fallen tree branches on the side of a busy road in Chennai.
Cows on the Road

There are so many different types of transportation here. The airport is about fifteen minutes from where we are staying at Madras Christian College. From the airport, I took a private bus to our destination, but there are also public city buses that carry passengers packed in like sardines. If you need to travel somewhere a bit farther, you can take the economy train. They even have compartments assigned to women.

All the women on the trip rode on the ladies compartment. We were standing shoulder to shoulder in the train pushing each other farther in to make room for new passengers.
Rush Hour Train from Channai Egmore

I have ridden in Ubers, and I know there are also other similar modes such as Lyft or Ola. If you can’t wait for a car to pick you up, there are auto rickshaws at just about every block willing to drive you.

We took a ride on an autorickshaw, which is a motorcycle with attached seating in the back. The picture shows another auto rickshaw driving passed us and the back of our diver's head.
View from the Auto Rickshaw

After doing research on the population of Chennai, I better understand why each mode of transportation is so crowded. Chennai is the fourth largest metropolitan area in India. It has about 4.9 million people in the city and around 9 million in the urban agglomeration. To compare, Washington D.C. only has around 5.7 million people in the metropolitan area. Chennai is exponentially increasing in size as rural families move to the metropolitan area.

There are environmental reasons for this shift in urban population. In one of our lectures, Dr. Venkatachalam mentioned that rural farmers continue to migrate due to lack of irrigation water for their farms. The government has been exploiting the natural resources, like rivers, lakes, and even irrigation tanks, that farmers rely on for their livelihood. Because of this encroachment of farmers’ irrigation water, farmers are forcibly moved to urban areas; they are considered environmental refugees. However, the increase in the city’s population has caused a scarcity of water in the urban area, and the government continues to exploit more and more resources on which farmers depend. The government’s solution only fuels the problematic cycle.

Chennai has to accommodate more and more people every day. Even though Chennai is overpopulated, people use all possible forms of transportation to their fullest potentials. The efficiency and number of options that Chennai’s transportation offers surpassed my low expectations and forced me to step back and evaluate the reasons for my false preconceived notions.




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