Revisiting Chennai’s Non-Motorised Transport Policy

It has been nearly a decade since Chennai Corporation adopted the Non-Motorised Transport Policy. Has anything changed since then?

Arun Kumar’s daily commute from Ashok Pillar to Thiruvanmaiyur is fraught with danger. “I am at the risk of being hit by one or the other vehicle while walking on the road,” he says. “With the stormwater drain work, many footpaths that existed earlier have vanished. Now that we are forced to share road space with vehicles,” he says.

Vulnerable groups such as pedestrians, cyclists and persons with disabilities share these harrowing experiences navigating the city.

Data released by the Greater Chennai Traffic Police in February shows that 35% (179 of the 508 people) of casualties caused by road accidents in Chennai in 2022 were pedestrians. While reckless driving by motorcyclists killed 79 pedestrians, 11 pedestrians were killed by accidentMetropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC), pedestrians were the victims in 11 cases.

The Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) Policy of Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) was drafted to prevent exactly this situation by reducing the number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities to 0. The target was to be achieved in 2018, but the situation on the ground has only worsened.

Read more: Road accidents in Chennai and what can be done to prevent them

Non-Motorised Transport Policy’s promise for Chennai

Even basic civic work becomes a hindrance to the vulnerable groups on the roads. Some of the key points from the Non-Motorised Transport Policy were aimed at improving the experience of the city for pedestrians.

Here are some of the key aspects outlined in the NMT policy.

For pedestrians and cyclists

  • GCC will provide footpaths where there are none, and increase the width of footpaths where pedestrian volumes are high in order to prevent pedestrian overflow onto the carriageway and to ensure continuity.
  • GCC will ensure that street space is allocated for the vehicle carriageway only after adequate space has been reserved for walking, cycling, trees, and street vending.
  • GCC will combine incentives for Non-Motorised Transport and public transport use with disincentives for private vehicle use. “Better cycling, walking, and public transport services increase the viability of initiatives meant to restrict private vehicle usage,” reads the policy.
  • GCC will pursue all means to free up space for segregated footpaths (such as removing vehicle parking) and will prioritise street amenities (street furniture, landscaping, trees, etc.) over vehicle parking.
  • GCC will design carriageways to provide for efficient mobility of public transport, nonmotorised vehicles, and other vehicles at moderate speeds.
  • GCC will provide clearly marked and protected access for pedestrians and cyclists at station areas to minimise conflicts, particularly at passenger pick-up and drop-offs, bus facilities, and parking access points.
  • GCC will prohibit pedestrian foot over-bridges (FOBs) and subways on GCC streets.
  • GCC will institute a repair and maintenance programme to keep all footpaths and cycle tracks in a good state of repair and cleanliness. During construction projects that compromise the use of NMT infrastructure, GCC will provide alternative means for pedestrians and cyclists to circulate.
  • Cycle tracks will have at least 2 m of clear space, will be positioned at a higher level than the carriageway, and will be compliant with other standards in the CSDM.
  • GCC will encourage segregated and unobstructed, two-way median cycle tracks that have at least 4 m clear width and are compliant with IRC standards where a centre median is present and frequent property access points or commercial uses interrupt side tracks.
  • GCC will provide secure and plentiful bicycle parking at station entrances with additional cycling amenities at high-volume locations.

Read more: How effective has public bike sharing been in Chennai?

For Persons with Disabilities

GCC will ensure that footpaths, crossings and other elements of the pedestrian environment are accessible to all users, in compliance with the draft National Building Code/BIS Indian Accessibility Standards (2009). 

GCC will develop a set of key criteria for designing pedestrian-only zones that will include the prohibition of all private vehicle traffic, using bollards and other barriers to physically prevent vehicles from encroaching on Non-Motorised Transport space, ensuring compliance of the zones with disability access guidelines, providing cycle parking, providing for commercial deliveries outside of normal hours, and accommodating emergency response vehicles. 

Safety of Non-Motorised Transport users

GCC will identify key conflict points, black spots, areas of sexual harassment and/or violence, areas of personal crime, and areas of isolation. GCC will provide additional lighting at these locations to improve safety and security for Non-Motorised Transport users.

The following were the goals set by the GCC to meet by 2018, four years after the inception of the Non-Motorised Transport Policy.

  • Increase the mode share for pedestrians and cyclists to at least 40 per cent.
  • Reduce the number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities to 0 per annum. 
  • Ensure that at least 80 per cent of streets have footpaths. 
  • Ensure that at least 80% of streets with a right-of-way (ROW) of over 30 m have unobstructed, segregated, continuous cycle track of 2m width. 
  • Increase public transport mode share to at least 60 per cent of motorised trips. 
  • Stabilise private motor vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) so that there is 0 per cent annual growth in VKT. 

Implementation of Non-Motorised Transport Policy in Chennai

“The Non-Motorised Transport Policy has made no difference in Chennai. The problem here is the disconnect. We have everything on paper but nothing seems to have been translated on the ground,” says Sumana Narayanan, Senior Researcher at Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group.

There is a need for change in mindsets, not only of the public but also those in authority. “They are still in the whole infrastructure-building mode, which focuses on building flyovers, big buildings and roads. They have not moved beyond that and started to look into sustainability aspects,” she adds.

Pointing out that the Pedestrian Plaza in Pondy Bazar is good but that is only for one stretch of the road, Sumana questions the condition of roads in all other areas. “Recently we did a review on a bunch of places in Chennai where there is a good footfall of people. We found that most of the places had no pedestrian pathways. Even in places that have walkways, it was disconnected after a point. Besides, the pedestrian crossings were also poorly maintained. The only exception was Harrington Road,” she notes.

Read more: Steps to make Chennai footpaths safe and comfortable for pedestrians

There are two types of cyclists in Chennai – who do not have any other option but to cycle for a regular commute. These people come from low-income communities whose livelihood is based on their commute through cycles. There is the other group who consciously switched to cycling for sustainability or health reasons. “The plight of the former is hardly taken into account,” points out Sumana.

chennai cyclists
More cyclists will take to the road with better safety and facilities to secure their cycles. Pic: Felix John

“Even in the recent stakeholders meeting conducted by the Highways department for the transformation of existing roads into smart urban roads, the designs failed to include the cyclists in the picture. The consultants have also said that they will consider the cycling lanes if there is sufficient space, which is contrary to Chennai’s Non-Motorised Transport Policy,” points out Felix John, the Bicycle Mayor of Chennai.

There are no proper crossings for pedestrians across many roads in the city. “One good example is the Tank Bund Road. From the underground bridge of Nelson Manickam road, there is a crossing near Loyola College. The next pedestrian crossing is at the next traffic signal. Do they want the pedestrians to walk for more than half a kilometre just so they can cross the roads?” he asks.

Pointing out how even the new projects propose FOBs as a solution for easy pedestrian crossing, he notes that FOBs are rather a favour to free vehicular movement. “Just because the roads cutting through the city belong to the Highways Department, it does not mean that the vehicles should be given a free way to ride at high speed,” he adds.

chennai-near-Ripon-Building-bollards-space not enough for wheelchair to pass
Space between the bollards on the pavements near Ripon Building is not enough for a wheelchair user to pass. Pic: Disability Rights Alliance (DRA)

Even in FOBs like Nungambakkam that have ramp facilities, access to it has been blocked by bollards for wheel-chair users, says Vaishnavi Jayakumar, a Disability Rights Activist. “There are many places in Chennai where bollards are installed on the walkways to prevent vehicular movement. This can be seen in areas like Wall Tax road and Nelson Manickam road.  “But in reality, it stops the persons with disabilities from accessing the pavements,” she adds.

Vaishnavi also points out that advanced technology and the updated laws related to accessibility should be updated in the Non-Motorised Transport Policy of Chennai.

Similarly, the flyovers, which are aimed at easing vehicular movement, are creating bottleneck traffic, says Felix, adding that “The vehicles might have a free flow when they climb the flyovers but they end up creating bottleneck traffic when they merge with the road on the other end of the flyover. Cyclists are in high danger at these merging points.”

The stormwater drain works have put pedestrians and cyclists in a very dangerous situation. “Cycle lanes were put properly in KK Nagar which had many schools in and around the locality. The cycle lanes start from KK Nagar which means that the children in KK Nagar can use the cycle lanes to ride to school. What about the children who reside 2 km away from the schools? With the stormwater drain works, even those cycle lanes have vanished now,” points out Felix.

Read more: K K Nagar a perfect example of what puts off cyclists in Chennai

“Except for Pondy Bazar, I do not find the Non-Motorised Transport Policy implemented anywhere else. If we are going to promote only private vehicles, why should we adopt a Non-Motorised Transport Policy for Chennai that cannot be put into practice? Why should the government set unrealistic goals when they know that they cannot meet them?” asks Felix, adding that the government could rather be loud and clear about encouraging private vehicles.

The whole idea of the Non-Motorised Transport Policy is about sustainability in the long run. But there is an unsustainable spike in the use of two-wheelers, especially post-pandemic, both in Chennai and across the state. There is no space to accommodate such a spike. “In such a case, we should focus on pedestrians, from whom the space was taken for vehicular movement while discussing six lanes and four-lane projects,” she notes.

In the meantime, the government should also invest in public transport and ensure it is accessible for all. “Even when the population is on the rise and the roads are getting choaked, we continue to have less than 4,000 buses. The fleet size of public transport also remains static for a long time. This is unsustainable,” she says, adding that unless the government translates what is on paper and builds a robust public transport infrastructure, the people are not going to shift to sustainable modes. 

Over the past years, the Non-Motorised Transport Policy has been able to help the Corporation create over 170 km of streets with adequate space for pedestrians. The transformation of Pondy Bazar into a pedestrian haven has also become possible because of the policy. Today, the urban local body is scaling up this work under the Chennai City Partnership (Mega Street Programme), which aims to improve streets of about 100 km with high-quality public spaces. “All of this could not have been possible without the Non-Motorised Transport Policy as it set the progressive vision of prioritising most vulnerable road users —pedestrians and cyclists,” says Aswathy Dilip, Managing Director of the Institute for Transporation and Development Policy (ITDP) India, an organisation that has helped the Chennai Corporation prepare the Non-Motorised Transport Policy and has also been reviewing the streets redesigned in the city limit.

Read more: Creating streets for walking: Can Chennai create more Pondy Bazaars?

Time for course correction

Speaking on the challenges of implementing the Non-Motorised Transport Policy in Chennai, Aswathy observes, “The Non-Motorised Transport Policy was adopted by Greater Chennai Corporation and hence its jurisdiction is restricted to the streets in the corporation limit. However, the main streets with the largest number of road accidents fall under the jurisdiction of the Highways Department. With a new project, where more than 100 km of highway roads are being redesigned, there is a great opportunity to reimagine the arterials in the city as urban highways that ensure safe mobility for vulnerable road users while ensuring a seamless traffic flow.”

“Since GCC and not the Highways Department adopted the Non-Motorised Transport Policy, it may not be right to say that the policy applies to the latter though it should be,” says Aswathy.

With these learnings, Chennai’s Non-Motorised Transport Policy must be reviewed. It is time for the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) to adopt a new version of the same policy that prioritises pedestrians and cyclists so that any project, irrespective of which department executes it, can prioritise vulnerable road users. 

“This step can ensure that all plans made going forward, like that of the CMDA’s Master Plan, multi-modal integration plans, and the transformation of city roads by all departments, ensure that pedestrians and cyclists are put at the forefront,” adds Aswathy.

Quoting lessons from Paris, Aswathy points out that even when a utility department digs up a street in Paris, it ensures that the street is redesigned per the guidelines to ensure comprehensive redevelopment of its streets. 

“However, during the stormwater drain works, many footpaths built since 2014 were removed but were not rebuilt with a safe walking environment. An assessment of this has to be made,” she notes.

Read more: Looking beyond stormwater drains to realise the dream of a flood-free Chennai

Similarly, the Active Mobility bill floated in Karnataka mandates any new street that is being redesigned to be constructed only with adequate safe space for pedestrians and cyclists. A similar state-level policy for Tamil Nadu is also required. 

“This will greatly boost the state’s initiatives of free travel for women and free cycles for students. These women and children need safe streets to access buses and use their cycles to reach schools,” adds Aswathy.

While Chennai pioneered a pathbreaking  NMT policy in the country, the city has fallen far short of meeting the goals of the policy in its implementation. With CUMTA beginning operations and the Third Master Plan in the works, looking to rectify the issues in the NMT policy to prioritise vulnerable road users must be undertaken at the earliest. 

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