Where cars are king and pedestrians their slaves

Thanks to lack of political will and unfortunate US-style aspiration, we have arrived at a sad state of affairs as far as urban mobility is concerned. In this first of a four-part series, the author explains the latent inequality and hierarchy in our city streets.

Co-authored by Dattatraya T Devare and Saurabh Ketkar

It is not news that urban Indian roads are a nightmare, and Bangalore is perhaps in the contention for winning the award for the worst traffic scenario. But one needs to dig deeper to find the root of the problem. Our streets are extremely unequal, in more ways than one.

The streets of our city are perhaps the most democratic of spaces we can envision. Protests against governments, demands of minority groups, gay pride parades all find expression on the streets. It is the one space that every citizen can share with every other citizen, and we cannot own it privately, but collectively. Every single citizen of a major city is a stakeholder in this issue.

Collectively, we have arrived at a very unfortunate juncture. It is not one but a multitude of problems that are plaguing our streets. We have inadequate road space for the number of vehicles being added every day, our public transport infrastructure is crumbling under financial losses, pedestrians are squeezed into corners and a clear hierarchy emerges on the streets. Private cars are the king and the pedestrian is the slave.

If that sounds extreme to you, let’s look at the data: Out of a total of 684 road fatalities recorded in 2018 in Bangalore, 276 were pedestrians and nearly 60% of those pedestrians were crossing the road before the fatal accident, according to police reports. In 2017, as many as 29% of pedestrian deaths were senior citizens, highlighting how dangerous it is for the vulnerable lot.

Now let us look at the cars. They have only been increasing in number and in size. What remains constant, is the size of the road and parking spaces available for them. The victim again is the pedestrian, as pavements are often used for vehicular parking. Compared to 2017, the number of pavement parking incidents grew by 9% in 2018 in Bangalore, according to police data.

Even the TenderSURE roads, that are arguably the most pedestrian friendly streets in the city, are not exempt from these infringements. Even street vendors, whose livelihoods depend on the streets, are badly hit, as there is absolutely no space for them. They become innocent victims in this unfair/inequitable distribution of space between cars, public transport vehicles, two wheelers and pedestrians.

What do global trends say?

Many countries in the world have experienced a similar situation and have tried different approaches to reducing the number of cars on the road. In the Emirate of Dubai, getting a driving license is so notoriously difficult that people can only learn from authorized driving schools and it often takes several attempts to actually clear the test.

In Japan, a car owner has to prove that he owns a parking space called parking certificates. This prevents private cars from being parked on the streets.

In Singapore, they have a tax slab structure that starts at 100% of the price of the car below $20,000 and keeps increasing. A Singaporean has to pay at least double of what his international counterparts have to pay to own the same car. There is another connection these cities share. Japan and Singapore have some of the finest public transport networks in the world. Even Dubai’s public transport infrastructure is quite impressive with a fast-growing metro, tram and bus networks.

The Indian tale

A study published by the Centre for Science and Environment on road congestion in Delhi throws light on the issue, as it explains the competition between road space and the car population. The road network in Delhi increased 3.7 times between 1971-72 and 2005-06 (from 8,380 kms to 31,183 kms) but during the same period, the number of vehicles grew 21 times. As time progresses, the scope to increase road space reduces drastically as more and more space around existing streets are used by people for housing and commercial establishments.

Traffic in Delhi (Representational image). Pic: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

While there is no end to the number of cars that can ride on the road, there is an end to the road that the cars can ride on. The space between millions of acres of private property in a city is your street, and it literally has nowhere to grow.

Public transportation plays a critical role in the urban infrastructure landscape, as they carry the maximum number of passengers in the least amount of space possible. In Bangalore, the 6500 BMTC buses carry nearly half of all trips in a day. Around 45 lakh trips. Compared to this number, the metro still looks small, as its record ridership so far has been 4.4 lakh and will eventually grow.

But the cars, especially private cars, are mostly driven with a single occupant and account for nearly 76% of road space. This gross inequity of the choices a citizen has to move in a city is choking our roads and our lungs. If people could, they would choose public transport, but it should feel seamless. Having good quality pavements can ensure last mile connectivity, and improve the overall health of the people of the city.

Wanted: A cultural and policy shift

The argument given against this idea is that India is an aspirational society, and one that regards car ownership and home ownership as signs of upward financial and social mobility. In many parts of the country, there is an unnecessary competition to show off one’s wealth, either by buying more cars or more expensive cars. Everyone wants the most expensive car in the neighbourhood and will go to any lengths to prove their wealth.

But India cannot afford American-style aspiration. Instead, what we need is European-style aspiration, where quality of urban life is what is valued over personal display of wealth. European cities learnt it the hard way that the number of vehicles cannot grow indefinitely without compromising other stakeholders of the street. It took the death of nearly 400 children in road accidents in the year 1972 for the people of the Netherlands to demand more inclusive distribution of road space. Today, cycling and the Netherlands are synonymous.

We have on average 3 pedestrians dying every 4 days in 2018 in Bangalore. At what number do you think we will wake up?

What urban India desperately needs today is a change in public policy, but that can only come with a fiery political will or immense public pressure. Because, it does not take much money to build and operate a pavement, or a cycling lane. Building flyovers or “elevated corridors” requires huge sums of money, but seems to find favour with our political class and bureaucracy. It seems like they don’t really see any political dividends by designing and building more inclusive and equitable streets.

While fiery political will has seldom been a strong point in the Indian political ecosystem, the only option we have is putting public pressure. Only when citizens assert themselves vis-à-vis their elected representatives, will there be some hope for more inclusive and equitable streets.

[About co-author Saurabh Ketkar: Saurabh Ketkar works for a start-up in Bangalore, 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.]


  1. Varadarajan raman says:

    Absolutely shocking! Should we remind the Government, that footpaths and pedestrians represent the lakhs of ordinary residents of Bengaluru. Public transport is the other aspect that caters to the ordinary person. Should therefore footpaths and public transport not be the central focus of all transportation schemes? Bengaluru’s serious air and noise pollution is a result of this mismanagement and neglect. What if and when investments into Bengaluru stop due to its poor liveability? Is the government oblivious to the situation?

    • Saurabh says:

      Hi Raman,

      we have written an entire article on pedestrians, public transport and policies that can reduce usage of cars. Please follow the series “Inequality on Urban Indian streets”

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