Mumbai is a city where distance is not measured in kilometres or miles, it’s measured in time. Terms like ‘kilometers‘ or ‘miles‘ are academic constructs, used in maps to tell you how far one city or country is from the other.
If you’re a Mumbaikar asking a fellow local about the distance from one part of the city to the other, the standard response will be a unit of time.
It wasn’t till I’d reached college and started making solo trips to visit friends in other cities, that I discovered that my measure of distance was an aberration to anyone who lived outside Mumbai. If you live in a city outside Mumbai, here’s what a conversation with a visiting Mumbaikar might sound like.
Mumbaikar: “How far is Place A from Place B?”
You: “7 kilometers”
Mumbaikar: (Sounding confused) “7 kilometers…..hmm…but how long will it take me to get there?”
You: (Taking a moment to think about it) “Maybe 15 or 20 minutes.”
Mumbaikar: (Sounding relieved) “Oh, that’s not too far then. Thanks!”
Time is how the Mumbaikar measures his life. It’s kind of endemic to the way we live. Rushing to school. Rushing to work. Rushing home. Rushing to make that appointment. To get chores done. Always rushing. A Mumbaikar with time on his hands is a rare creature indeed.
It was August of 2014 and I’d had enough. My 40 km. commute to work and back took three hours (90 min each way). But since it was monsoon season traffic had gotten worse. Some days I would spend up to four hours travelling to and from work. In the course of the preceding year, I’d breezed through my music collection enough times so that songs that I loved had started to grate on my ears. I’d exhausted my collection of audio books and podcasts too. The only traffic that seemed to move in that sea of stationery vehicles were the motorcyclists—flitting in and out between lanes, steadily threading their way through the humdrum monotony of a 10,000 idling engines. I studied them with envy, these folk on their two-wheelers looking keen and alert, while the rest of us sat yawning with boredom and picking at our noses while we waited for the lights to change. Why shouldn’t I jump on the bandwagon and get a motorcycle too?
Now ask most car owners if they’d consider switching to a motorcycle and they might smirk in derision. After all, a car provides shelter from the elements, climate control, an entertainment system, not to mention relative safety from other vehicles. Cars offer a stable and secure mode of transportation. They reflect maturity and a sense of being ‘grown up’. In comparison motorcycles (and motorcyclists) might seem like errant teenagers. They flout traffic rules—lane splitting at a whim, and always seem to jump to the front of the line at the traffic light, with no regard for the car drivers behind them who’ve been waiting patiently for their turn. Compared to cars, motorcycles seem irresponsible, even dangerous. So even though I’d loved riding motorcycles in the past, the decision of switching from four wheels to two was not something to take lightly and merited a good deal of thought. Fortunately, sitting behind the wheel gave me a lot of time to do just that. And by September rolled around I’d decided to take the plunge. I’ve never looked back since.
A lot has been written about the romance of motorcycles, the sense of freedom, of having the wind in your face, feeling the thrum of the engine between your legs as you steer with you whole body. But what really surprised me most about my motorcycle is the impact it’s had on the way I operate—both at work and at home. Like most commuters in a big city, my mornings were usually rushed. In Mumbai, a five minute delay in leaving your could amount to an additional 10-15 minutes on the road. Not so when you’re riding a motorcycle. Since I could jump to the front of every line, I ended up shaving a significant amount of time on my commute. A 70-90 minute journey was now reduced to 40 minutes; cutting my commute time in almost half. On days when I did get caught up in really bad traffic, it still never took me longer than an hour. As a result my mornings were a little more relaxed. I could spend more time with the wife at home, reading my morning paper, and still get to work on time. When I was driving, I would sometimes stay back in the office to work a little longer, just so that I could avoid the worst of the traffic and have shorter commute on the way home. I’d rather spend an extra hour in the office, getting stuff done for the next morning and hopefully shave off 20 minutes on my drive back. But regardless of when I left work, it was always the drive back home that would tire me out. I would arrive home feeling mentally and physically drained. I’d plonk myself in front the television while I grabbed dinner and eventually retire to bed. Most of my weekdays were dreary and monotonous.
Riding changed all that. All of a sudden, the commute became the most exciting part of my day. I’d arrive at work feeling charged up and ready to dive in to whatever project I happened to be working on. I no longer looked at the clock and considered if I should stay back in the office awhile longer. I was looking forward to the ride back home. Aside from the odd day, the physical and mental exhaustion I’d gotten used to experiencing at the end of the evening was now a thing of the past. I spent less time listening to podcasts and audio-books, but now I could catch up on all my reading. I could spend more time talking to my wife, finding out about her day and telling her about my own. I could even practice my ukulele on a weekday instead of just on weekends. In short, riding a motorcycle gave me more time to do the things I wanted to do, when I wanted to do them. And the fact that it turned my commute into an engaging and enjoyable experience was the icing on the cake!
Now some of you might think that riding had turned me into some sort of speed-demon, but it hasn’t. Even though I’d reduced my commute to from 90 minutes down to 40, given that I was only traveling 20 kilometers each way, it meant that I was travelling at an average speed of about 30 km/h. To put that in perspective, I was still moving slower than what Olympic level sprinters do in competition. In fact, Usain Bolt has been clocked at an average speed of in excess of 44 km/h, which is approximately 46% faster than my own average commuting speed.
Of course there is the question of safety, and riding safely requires two types of preparation
- Absolute focus on the road and the traffic around you, I keep my phone and headphones stuffed away in my pack so that there is no distraction on the road.
- Ensuring I’m wearing the appropriate safety gear whenever I swing a leg over the bike.
A fair bit of research has gone into choosing the right motorcycles gear. My helmet is simply the best one that I could afford. My jacket, gloves, boots and and pants are optimally designed for urban riding in warm weather. And all my gear uses CE rated armour to ensure the adequate protection. Of course all this gear isn’t exactly comfortable in summer weather and it was quite a departure from the climate controlled environment of my car, but a few small changes have made life much easier. My riding shirts are made from the same materials made popular by most active wear today. They wick sweat away from the body very effectively and dry much faster than natural fibers like cotton. My dress shirts are neatly folded into my pack, and I keep a pair of formal shoes in the office allowing me to change to office appropriate attire as soon as I get into work.
Switching to a motorcycle was the single best decision I made in 2014, and it’s not something I’ve ever regretted. As I write this, I’ve been nursing an injured knee for the past month—a torn ligament from from a game of football. Based on the doctors advice I’ve had to give up riding (and driving) for the next few weeks, but every day I feel the urge to swing a leg over my motorcycle and take her out for a short spin. So if you’re just another guy (or girl) who plans your schedule around the weekday commute, I highly recommend that you consider trading up to a motorcycle. I say trading up, because a motorcycle offers so much more than a chance to save yourself some time. You’ll find yourself happier, more engaged and doing the things you want to do.