Pedals of change: Chennai’s shift to a sustainable mobility future

Prioritising bicycles over cars and promoting the use of public transport can increase Chennai's sustainability quotient.

The transformation of Chennai, from a trading post entrenched in the bylanes of Fort St. George, to a bustling metropolis with gleaming skyscrapers along the historic Mahabalipuram road underscores its economic progress and growth.

The visionaries of the city exhibited exemplary foresight in establishing an extensive road network and suburban train systems that set a precedent for the future. The city’s continued investment in the Metro Rail, connecting important nodes of the city, is encouraging use of public transport.

As per the Ease of Moving Index — Chennai City Profile report, Chennai leads the way with the highest mass transit network, boasting over 3.3 kilometres per lakh population among mega cities in the country.

Potential as a sustainable city

However, there’s an opportunity to enhance its utility as motorisation has seen significant growth, at a steady 6.6% compound annual growth rate over the past decade. Moreover, the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for Chennai Metropolitan Area in 2018 highlights areas for improvement, including a call to promote walking and cycling, setting the stage for a more vibrant and sustainable city.

Read more: Cycle Katta: Where cycling meets conversations

Walking along the network of narrow lanes in George Town in the city, where cycle rickshaws once plied, brings back a wave of nostalgia. Chennai’s transition from vibrant lanes to crowded thoroughfares full of cars, shows how people are now forced to move along the outer fringes.

The Chennai city profile findings suggest 36.2% respondents own bicycles. Their underutilisation highlights the need for a paradigm shift in mobility priorities. The challenges of increasing vehicles, safety issues, congestion, emission and parking will have a dire impact on both ease of living as well as ease of moving.

A way out of the chaos

Bengaluru and Pune experience high vehicular growth making them the 6th and 7th most congested cities globally on the TomTom traffic index-2023. In comparison, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have taken a humane approach that has proven successful. These cities prioritise bicycles over motor vehicles resulting in lower congestion and were ranked  151 and 160 on the same index.

Though Chennai does not feature in the index, the city intermittently experiences traffic snarls and gets choked during peak periods. Although speed is essential, safety, sustainability and building a resilient ecosystem cannot be compromised and is instrumental for ease of moving.

The draft Chennai Climate Action Plan highlights, 16% of the city’s greenhouse gas emission inventory is attributed to the transport sector. The correlation between vehicular emissions and climate change necessitates urgent action that hinges on promoting walking, cycling, and public transportation.

The pedestrian plaza in the bustling commercial hub of T-Nagar demonstrates that good pedestrian infrastructure can alleviate vehicular  traffic congestion and improve air quality. The archival photographs where bicycles were once a ubiquitous sight, seamlessly navigating the city’s landscape, could be difficult to replicate.

Dwindling greenery and pollution problems

Cycling is not just good for our health but also the health of a city. Pic courtesy: Gender and Policy Lab

The lost canopy on the boulevards, especially during the sweltering heat not only dissuades people from walking and cycling but also reduces the capacity of the city to breathe clean air. Hence, lush green cover of indigenous trees along with good infrastructure can provide impetus for active and shared mobility, significantly reducing PM2.5 emission and contributing to a healthier city.

The alarming number of road fatalities recorded between 2014–2021 in Chennai, particularly among pedestrians, were second highest across all urban centres in the country. Similar issues of road crashes and oil shortage were triggers for change in the Netherlands to build more inclusive and liveable cities pivoting around the bicycle.

While road crashes can be addressed by improving illumination and prioritising infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, overcoming the social stigma to embrace cycling as a mode of commute will need behavioural change.

Read more: Chennai women cycle to assert their right to the city

Chennai needs its own version of ‘woonerf’ by reimagining streetscapes as vibrant community spaces adorned with lush greenery; the city can foster a culture of active mobility while enhancing overall livability.

Reimagining the city

Changing one street at a time to rebuild the city, Chennai is due for another transformation. Despite facing challenges such as the recent pandemic and natural disasters like Cyclone Michaung, the city has demonstrated resilience and resolve. It swiftly rebounded from the aftermath of the cyclone to host a successful global investor meet, securing investments exceeding Rs 6 lakh crore for the state.

However, to secure a prosperous and sustainable future, the city must prioritise cohesive planning and efficient implementation of strategic initiatives outlined in masterplans, comprehensive mobility plans, and climate action agendas.

The impact of climate change is imminent, hence constant vigilance and proactive planning to build resilient infrastructure will not only safeguard the city’s future but also enable it to adapt better.

Chennai, the ‘Detroit of Asia’ has a penchant for manufacturing from cycles to modern day trucks, but transforming it to the ‘Copenhagen of India’ would require not only a change in infrastructure but also travel behaviour.

By harnessing its manufacturing prowess and fostering a culture of sustainable travel, the city can emerge as a beacon of progress and resilience, setting a precedent for cities worldwide.

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