The reforms needed to make walking in our cities safe, convenient and enjoyable

NEED AND URGENCY OF WALK-FRIENDLY CITIES

The wide footpaths of the pedestrian plaza in T Nagar Chennai
The wide footpaths of the pedestrian plaza have been designed to provide an unhindered walking experience in T Nagar, Chennai. Pic: Mahesh V

With the inexorable progress of the urbanization process, we have seen a steady growth in the number of personal vehicles resulting in congestion, pollution and less walk-friendly city streets. The design of the road infrastructure, in attempting to accommodate the increase in vehicles, makes it less convenient and safe for walking, and hence makes it a non-preferred mode for non-captive users. Which is to say, that those who have no option but to walk, do so with great difficulty and at great risk to themselves, while others simply avoid walking and take to motorised transport.

As a result, not only are pedestrian fatalities going up but the modal share of walking (the percentage of journeys by walk, compared to journeys by two/three/four wheelers, buses, etc)  is also decreasing.

Pedestrian deaths peaked in 2019. As per the report “Road Accidents in India 2019” published by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, 17% of traffic fatalities were pedestrians. Almost 26,000 pedestrians were killed during that year, an increase of 86% from 2015.

Chart showing pedestrian fatalities in India
Source: “Road Accidents in India 2019” published by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.

The report “Study on Traffic and Transportation Policies and Strategies in Urban Areas in India”, by Wilbur Smith Associates, published by the Ministry of Urban Development in 2008 showed an alarming trend of steep decline in walking in cities. They predicted a further drop in the years ahead, especially in small and medium towns.

Despite all this, Indians walk a lot. As per the 2011 Census, one third of all work trips are by foot. And women walk to work more than men – in rural areas two-thirds of women walk to work, in cities just a little less than half. The National Statistics Office (NSO) found that 60% of children walk to school.


Read more: Enforcing the ‘right to walk’ in Indian cities


Walkable-cities is an urban development priority

Since walking is a preferred, often only available option, for many urban commuters, the case for having walkable-cities is self-evident. Walking is also the most common “last-mile” mode to access public transport and any city that hopes to increase the number of people who use mass transit must also pay attention to the pedestrian infrastructure.

Walking is also a zero emission mode – and cities trying to reduce air pollution and their carbon footprint must recognize this as one of the solutions. Walkable cities will not only help reduce fatalities and injuries but also boost local economies. Cities like New York have recognized the need for active transport – walking and cycling – as a key ingredient to improve people’s health. The Indian middle class is already seeing the impact of sedentary lifestyles coupled with unhealthy diets and are most often walking primarily to exercise.

One cannot ignore the social benefits of a walkable city. Senior citizens walk not just for exercise but to socialize, children play and form friendships walking to school and all of us have felt the need to unwind after a long stressful day by taking a stroll – with someone or even by oneself – an activity that is growing increasingly difficult and unpleasant. We love to eat street food, enjoy finding bargains during street shopping and crowds will walk during festivals or for protest.


Read more: “If we love cities like Paris and Singapore, why not have pedestrian plazas in Chennai?”


When we visit some of the great cities in the world, we take in the sights and sounds while walking. Indian cities were built to walk; old city areas with their narrow lanes and intense street activities are havens to walk (when not being heckled by intrusive two-wheelers). As we build our cities, we have a chance to ensure that they are walkable, nay walk-friendly. But this will require some critical reforms.

National Pedestrian Conference in Chennai

It was to deliberate on these issues and discuss the way forward that the Sustainable Urban Mobility Network (SUM Net), India, a coalition of CSOs, practitioners and academics advocating for sustainable mobility (walking, cycling and public transport) in Indian cities, organized a two-day workshop in Chennai. The first such conference, dedicated wholly to the issue of walking and pedestrians, was organized in Pune in 2020.

This year the theme was “voices of pedestrians” – we heard from women, domestic workers, senior citizens, school children and persons with disabilities – in their own words about the problems they face while walking, their specific needs and what they would like to see happen to make things better.

Geethamma, who works with informal sector groups, recounted the various issues faced by pedestrians. She specifically highlighted the difficulties posed by one-way streets – how the multiple lanes and continuous flow of traffic makes it all but impossible to cross. Shanthi, a domestic worker gave a first hand account of her travails while walking, the encroached footpaths and the constant fear of vehicles. Sadly, she was also hit by an auto-rickshaw once, but has no option but to walk everyday.

Local celebrity nonagenarian Kamakshi paati spoke passionately about her fight for walkable footpaths. Mr. Gangadharan who was one of the members of the committee that drafted the National Policy on Senior Citizens admitted that the problems senior citizens face while walking have been completely missed in the policy. He highlighted the vulnerability of seniors while walking and the necessity for walking as they often cannot drive, for their health and for social interactions.

School children from across the country spoke about their experience of walking. The children and school teachers had been engaged in various activities by CEE Urban (a SUM Net member) – such as simple audits of streets in the vicinity of schools, and drawing/essay competitions on the theme. It was heart-rending to hear small kids talk about the pathetic state of footpaths, the aggression of vehicles and the fear they felt while walking.

Finally we heard from Dr. Sundar, a mathematics professor, now wheelchair bound and Prof K. Raghuraman, who teaches at the Government Arts College for Men, who is visually impaired. Prof Sundar explained how even a single step makes the path unpassable for a wheelchair. “One step is the same as infinite ones”, he explained in mathematical terms. Prof. Raghuraman often gets hurt when he bumps into wrongly placed obstacles.

Vaishnavi Jayakumar who works for the Disability Rights Alliance summarized the ongoing battle for implementation of the accessibility guidelines, which are mandated by law. “Even the much touted Chennai Metro Rail failed to make their infrastructure disability compliant”, she told the conference attendees.

The reality of walking on city streets

The provision of decent walkable footpaths and safe crossings seem like something that should be fairly easy. Yet, in city after city, we see this basic necessity being ignored. At the core of this problem is the apathy and lack of interest by city governments and their planning, road and traffic departments.


Read more: Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru, our cities treat pedestrians as second class citizens


The single-minded obsession is with motorized traffic and so road space, budgets and attention is lavished on the movement of vehicles, at the detriment of those who walk.The Traffic Police too are under pressure to clear traffic jams, never to ensure safe movement of those who walk. In the hierarchy of road users, the pedestrian is seemingly dead last.

Pedestrians too rarely protest, if at all. As if they have accepted their station in life, walking around the innumerable obstructions and parked vehicles on footpaths, running to cross the street, with nary a peep. The other issue is that footpaths, or the edges of streets, get used for innumerable utilities and installations – being seen as a “free for all” space.

Garbage bins, signages, public toilets, gantry columns, CCTV camera poles, benches, open air gyms, kiosks, bus stands, electric/internet distribution boxes all get installed, and construction materials get dumped, in a random manner on the already narrow footpaths. Coordinating with all these agencies, who use footpaths with impunity is a major challenge.

Collage showing obstructions to walking on city streets
The innumerable obstructions faced by pedestrians on a daily basis on city streets. Pic courtesy: Ranjit Gadgil

National Pedestrian Policy

The second day of the conference focussed on the crucial steps that are needed to fix these issues. We presented a draft National Pedestrian Policy, which outlines eighteen objectives to be met, from the capacity building of urban local bodies to be able to create high quality pedestrian infrastructure that takes into account the varied users, their safety and comfort and the need for resilience in the face of possible disasters, including climate change to a stronger and more effective enforcement of traffic rules, and the need for a statutory framework for cities to ensure that provision of accessible, safe and pleasant walking environments is mandatory.

Anuj Malhotra who works at Srinagar Smart City Limited underscored the importance of urban design to create accessible pedestrian infrastructure and walkable cities. “More urban designers are needed to work in the Government” was his opinion.


Read more: Better mobility design can encourage the use of public transport, cycling and walking


Aswathy Dilip from ITDP, an organisation which has worked on pedestrianization projects like the Pondy Bazaar plaza and provides technical assistance to the Smart Cities Mission, also endorsed the idea that cities needed to have in-house urban design capacities.

In order to address the particularly vexing issue of the multiplicity of agencies that install or encroach on footpaths, the policy also suggests that each city should have a dedicated non-motorized transport cell, with representation from various departments, so that they can all work together to ensure walkable footpaths.

National Pedestrians’ Day

One key objective that is also sought to be achieved is to sensitize stakeholders about the plight of pedestrians and the need to give this much neglected area priority and importance. While the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 says that pedestrians must have priority on the roads, we don’t see that happening.

One suggestion therefore in the draft policy is to declare one day in the year as National Pedestrians’ Day. Such a day will send a strong message that pedestrians and their rights are important and must be respected. More importantly it will create an opportunity for pedestrians to understand their rights and hopefully organize to demand them.

In fact SUM Net partners recently celebrated January 11th as Pedestrians’ Day by conducting activities across various cities. And while Ramgarh in Jharkhand and Nagpur got official support for the day, Pune went one step further. The City Corporation officially declared December 11th as Pune Pedestrian Day and pedestrianized part of the busy Laxmi Road. Various pedestrian improvement projects were launched that day.

Harshad Abhyankar of Save Pune Traffic Movement who was instrumental in getting the city to adopt the day said, “while it is true that a single ‘day’ will not magically solve the myriad issues, what it can do is catalyze change, get CSOs, officials, politicians and other stakeholders working together and make a commitment for change”.

SUM Net plans to organize the conference every year and will keep pushing for a National Pedestrians’ Day and a National Pedestrian Policy. The network has already called upon the Prime Minister to declare January 11 as National Pedestrians’ Day, with a petition supported by over 160 organizations.

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About Ranjit Gadgil 2 Articles
Ranjit Gadgil is Programme Director at Parisar, a Pune-based NGO working to promote sustainable cities, deepening democratic processes and conserving built and natural heritage. He is a graduate from IIT Kanpur where he studied Physics. An avid cyclist, Ranjit uses a cycle to get around in Pune.