Co-authored by Dattatraya T Devare and Saurabh Ketkar
None of us can escape being a pedestrian. No matter which mode of transport you use, at some point of the day, you will be a pedestrian if you step out of home. But the moment you alight from any mode of transport or vehicle, and get on your own two feet in this country, you are perhaps the most vulnerable citizen on the street. In 2018, more than half of the fatalities on Mumbai streets were pedestrians; the numbers for Delhi and Bengaluru also do not look encouraging with 44% and 40% of road fatalities being pedestrians.
Citizen groups across the country have been demanding safer and more accessible pavements for pedestrians, but it has fallen on deaf ears of our local authorities. City and state governments can earmark thousands of crores for infrastructure projects like the elevated corridor project in Bengaluru, but do not see the dividends that pedestrian-centric pavements and infrastructure can give to its citizens. This has been the case in almost every major Indian city. While projects like TenderSURE roads in Bengaluru’s Central Business District are a step in the right direction, we still have a mountain to climb to ensure pedestrian safety, accessibility and comfort.
The less fortunate
Walking on most Indian streets feels like a mini obstacle course. You have to navigate through cars encroaching pavements, bikers using the pavement to cut traffic, haphazard levelling of granite slabs or tiles (if any) and also watch out for holes in the ground where the drainage cover was removed and never replaced. Why have we reached this state?
It is because just as in our society, we have created a caste system on our streets. Vehicles (mainly cars) command the exclusive right to use and abuse the road, while the pedestrian is left with scraps, and has to cower to the needs of the vehicles. We have to quickly cross streets without causing too much disturbance to the speed of the almighty car. Even if it kills us, the car does not care to slow down for us lesser mortals. Even a red signal is just a suggestion to stop, not a compulsion to do so. The almighty car will not be stopped for anything, except by other cars on the road.
While many citizens have the luxury of point-to-point transport, be it a private vehicle, auto rickshaw or a cab, for a significant section of our citizens, they have no alternative but to walk a certain distance till they find another vehicle to continue their journey. A particular section most vulnerable among pedestrians are senior citizens and those with disabilities. Nearly 29% of pedestrian deaths in the city of Bengaluru in 2017 were senior citizens and almost half of all road fatalities involved a two-wheeler or a car. The culture on our streets has turned into a battlefield between cars and citizens, and the citizens almost always lose.
Cars are private property, and streets are public property. So, when a private property occupies a public property for some time, there should be a rent or a charge levied on this private encroachment. But in India, car owners feel it is their birth right to have free parking anywhere and everywhere, and our traffic police do not have the authority nor the bandwidth to effectively regulate parking all across the city.
Bikers riding on pavements should be a criminal offence and treated with severity, as they put the lives of pedestrians at risk. They are invading the rightful place of the pedestrian and making them vulnerable to the damage private vehicles can cause, effectively treating them as second class citizens on the streets of the city.
Even measures with good intentions seem to backfire on Indian streets. The government of Karnataka had launched a project called Pelican crossings. It was designed to be a cost-effective measure to allow pedestrians to cross a street safely, without the need for a foot over bridge or pedestrian underpass. The idea was to allow pedestrians to control a traffic signal that would stop traffic when pedestrians pressed a button to cross the street. This feature is there in many developed countries, where flow of traffic is stopped by a traffic light, exclusively to let pedestrians cross.
In India, however, the switches that control them were vandalized and the signals became automatic, defeating the purpose. One could argue that the signals themselves were quite useless because of our commuter culture, where as we mentioned earlier, a red light is rarely recognised as a compulsory direction to stop. If we put a traffic light in the middle of a moving street with no actual junction, people violate that signal with impunity.
This is exactly what you see on the Inner Ring road near the Domlur flyover in Bengaluru. Unless that traffic signal is manned by a policeman in uniform, no one stops when the signal goes red. Traffic policemen are usually there at the signal only during peak hours, leaving a big section of the pedestrian population vulnerable to accidents while trying to cross during non-peak hours.
We are unable to see the power of a “Pedestrian First” approach to our city management. Numerous studies have shown that neighbourhoods with good walkability are usually in high demand, and it increases the prices of real estate in that neighbourhood. We would like to accomplish as many errands as possible on foot, if that option was available to us.
Research done by the Brookings institution in the United States found that amenity rich-walking neighbourhoods are more economically vibrant than their non walkable counterparts. In sharp contrast in our country, in various cities including Delhi, Resident Welfare Associations in privileged communities have erected gates on the public streets surrounding their homes, creating islands of wealth and inequality. Gated communities are in high demand and charge a premium price from interested buyers and tenants.
They are extremely attractive for families as they provide a safe space for children to walk, cycle and play around in without the fear of losing them to a hit-and-run. But only a few privileged people can afford to live in these utopian islands. For the majority of the children in our city, our streets pose a major challenge. They are not safe to walk or bike on, giving them very few alternatives of play and entertainment.
There is perhaps no reason why a city should not have safe and comfortable pavements. And perhaps the best way to judge a city is to see how it treats its pedestrians. If a city has safe, accessible and comfortable pavements, then it is a city that cares for its citizens. In India, our cities only care about the car, because all major infrastructure projects are undertaken only with the motorist in mind. (Think elevated corridors in Bengaluru or the coastal road projects in Mumbai).
It is apparent that our political class and bureaucracy are short sighted in their approach to building infrastructure. Instead of development that improves the quality of city life overall, we tend to focus only on certain choke points and come up with solutions that become obsolete in a few years. The Richmond road flyover comes to mind in Bengaluru, In Delhi, the recent completion of the RTR flyover would be another example.
A walk in the city has to satisfy four key conditions: it must be useful, safe, interesting and comfortable. When even one of these conditions is not met, it is not favoured by citizens. Since hardly any of these conditions are met on Indian roads, it is the least favoured mode of transportation, as the streets of our cities routinely compromise the safety and comfort of the pedestrian, in favour of the almighty car.
[About co-author Saurabh Ketkar: Saurabh Ketkar works for a start-up in Bengaluru, but has keen interest in urban planning and inclusive development. He worked as an intern at B-PAC. An avid cyclist and trekker, he believes that riding bicycles and using public transport are means to a happier urban life in India.]