Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hump Theory

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees. The moon was something equally compelling. And the road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor. Exactly the sort of setting for a highwayman to go riding, riding, riding, right up to the old inn door, where Bess, the landlord's black-eyed daughter, waits, plaiting a dark-red love-knot into her long black hair.

There wasn't much traffic on the road, on this the highway from Mysore to Bangalore. At the end of a three-day weekend, you would expect the hundreds of thousands that had bolted from Bangalore with a fervent desire to be somewhere... anywhere... else to be welcomed back with a warm log-jam. But here we were on an empty road. Strange.

And it had been a strange day. A little earlier, on the way back from Coorg, having missed a turn in the pouring rain, we found ourselves in the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, home to "Lion-tailed Macaque, Elephant, Gaur, Tiger, Jungle Cat, Leopard Cat, Wild Dog, Sloth Bear, Wild Pig, Sambar, Spotted Deer, Nilgiri Langur, Slender Loris, Bonnet Macaque, Common Langur, Barking Deer, Mouse Deer, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Giant Flying Squirrel, Nilgiri Marten, Common Otter, Brown Mongoose, Civets, Porcupine, Pangolin, Python, Cobra, King Cobra, Emerald Dove, Black Bulbul and Malabar Trogon," with the orange low-fuel indicator blinking more and more urgently in the dark of the rain-drenched forest.

Emerging out into the late-afternoon sunshine, we found ourselves in Kannur, Kerala, and not Mysore - two somewhat different places not usually mistaken for each other. The last fumes of petrol took us to a fuel bunk where the attendant was not only kind enough to tell us where we went astray (we would have to retrace our way back through Brahmagiri), but also pointed out the silver lining in that petrol is five bucks a litre cheaper in Kerala than in Karnataka.

As we zipped by on the Mysore-Bangalore highway, congratulating ourselves on picking a day and a time when we could whizz along with hardly a car in sight, we came upon, quite unexpectedly, an enormous traffic jam. It seemed to us that there were now hundreds - maybe thousands - of vehicles on the road. We crawled for twenty minutes, all the while scratching our chins with a good deal of puzzlement. And then, just like that, like Keyser Soze even, the jam was gone - it vanished like it had never been, and we were back to meeting five vehicles in fifteen minutes. There had been no intersections, no towns, no accidents, no anything to create the pileup.

From then on, the cycle repeated with baffling regularity. Phases of 100 kph+ cruises followed by 5 kph- crawls - with both phenomena unaccounted for. Where do all these vehicles come from? And where do they disappear to? There were three of us in the car - two programmers and a bio-scientist-something-or-the-other - highly trained to observe patterns and propound theories from said observations. But we were still at a loss. There had been no roads leading to (or out of) the highway before, at, or after the pileup spots to account for the flux. We considered medical-experiments-performing aliens picking up cars, and then dropping them back on the road at spots fixed as per intergalactic carjacking norms. But that, somehow, didn't grip.

It was then that we hit upon the clinching observation - there had been a hump (less imaginatively known as a speed-breaker) involved in each of those pileups. Thus, through inductive reasoning, Hump Theory was born. In short, the increase in the number of vehicles at any point on a no-reason-why-there-should-be-a-jam highway, from a point just before it, is directly proportional to the product of the distance between the two points and the height of the nearest hump ahead, and inversely proportional to the cube root of the distance from the second point to the hump.

That is,

 d x hr

Which translates to,

V = T x x h / r

where T is a traffic constant. Truth be told, it isn't so much a constant as a variable that depends on asphalt conditions, how badly the majority of the drivers on the road want to use the rest-room, whether they have interesting company, how happy they're with the music they've brought along, and a variety of other factors complex enough for us to want to bin the idea of defining it. Be our guest, though.

The lack of cars post-hump could be explained simply by the vehicles engaging their Warp Drives when clear of first gear. Once we hit upon the value of T for that evening, we could predict with enormous precision the distance to the nearest hump, plus its height, merely by noting the increase in vehicles in our vicinity. Not that it made our lives easier or anything... but it was good to know.

Could someone else take up the challenge of explaining why inter-city highways are designed such that they need humps every dozen kilometres or so? And even if you must have them, what for one whim or the other, why so in spots that do not particularly demand a snail's pace? Perhaps the planners were once abducted by aliens, and experimented on, thereby altering their neural pathways? Or maybe those are cow-crossings?