Gobar Times
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Wishful Walking: Solace in sidewalks

Close your eyes and imagine this scenario...

wide eight lane roads with four lanes in the centre dedicated solely to pedestrians. Lined with flowering trees on either side, this cobbled pedestrian pathway occupies pride of place on this road. It has benches and marked-out crossways where the motor vehicles, restricted wthin the two lanes on either side, must slow down to walking pace, whether there be pedestrians crossing or not. A designated bicycle lane marks the path less walked, mostly biked upon. A young mother pushes along a pram, unmindful of the traffic on the motor lanes, while a masala pao vendor doubles up as an impromptu crossing guard for four toddlers crossing to the other side. If a dastardly vehicle encroaches this sacred pedestrian path, the strictest of fines awaits its owner...

sdNow, open your eyes to reality...
Pedestrians, scared and impatient, are waiting to cross the road on which speeding cars and bikes are whizzing past at a busy traffic signal. Pragya, a mother of two from Gujarat, gets off a bus with a toddler held by hand and another settled on her hips. She steps gingerly atop a sidewalk barely three meters-wide, battling hawkers and vendors, and stepping around piles of debris. She must cross the road to get another bus or she is going to be late getting home. Meanwhile, 52-year-old businessman, Arvind Kapoor, throws caution to the wind and crosses the road... a deluge of abuses and incessant honking follow him. This puts the fear of god in 80-year-old Ramlal Seth, who is staring helplessly at the defunct pedestrian crossing light on the signal. He has no other way across, his old knees can neither lumber over a cumbersome foot over-bridge nor climb down into a dark, dingy rank-smelling subway...

Indian roads are war zones for the average pedestrian. You have to battle traffic, step around obstacles and if you are lucky enough to find a sidewalk, you have to share it with hawkers and vendors and parked vehicles. Why is it that planners who design roads in India only care about cars and motor vehicles? Who is looking out for the pedestrian? Why do we, as pedestrians, feel like criminals when crossing the road? Is there no other way?

GT spent some time pondering these questions and found that things are bad, really bad. But as with most things in life, they can get better. Well-maintained sidewalks and safe crossways are not the stuff of urban legends, they exist in reality in cities around the world. Believe it or not, but there are countries where the pedestrian has the right of way!  Keep reading, this is eye-popping stuff, this...

Sufferings from the sidewalk

 In 2008, US-based consultants, Wilbur Smith & Associates surveyed 30 Indian cities to assess their ‘walkability’. They found that less than 30 per cent of roads in these cities have pedestrian footpaths.

    Then again, even if footpaths exist, are they worth walking on?

We will tell you how we are a nation of walkers with its population and authorities in denial. But before, we get to that, read this...

    “On the Kilpauk Garden Road (Chennai), the footpath is narrow and does not have enough street lamps. People often defecate openly on the footpath and at times, motorists take their bikes over the footpath to avoid traffic. Once, a biker ran over my foot,” said Netheena Mathews, a 23-year-old journalist from Chennai, “There are two big schools and a play school on this road. Not all students come from well-to-do households and little kids walk back home, often unaccompanied by elders... It is a hellish ordeal to walk down these roads to safety.” Netheena lives in a “posh area in Chennai with round-the-clock police patrolling”, but still finds that the footpaths are unsafe as they “are not well-lit and are congested with hawkers, shoppers, pick pockets and parked and moving vehicles.”

What is walkability?

By walkability we mean the quality of walking facilities and conditions on the road that make them safe and convenient. Pedestrian facilities such as sidewalks, crosswalks, stairways, ramps and transit stops are supposed to be  well-lit and clean, obstruction free, wide and safe for crossing the road (and ideally, disabled-friendly). Walkways play an important role in linking interchange points such as bus stops and railway stations or bus stops and metro stations. The majority of our country’s population travels by these means. Careful planning has to go into the last mile.

Roads that follow pedestrian logic...
    Have clean sidewalks with even surface, and a minimum width of 1.5 metres and at a height of 15 centimeters
    Are accessible by disabled and mobility challenged
    Have crosswalks that are demarcated and allow easy flow of pedestrian traffic off and on to roads
    Have basic facilities like drinking water, phone booths, kiosks, shaded seating

Courtesy: Footfalls - Obstacles Course to Livable Cities, 2009, Right to Clean Air Campaign, Centre for Science and Environment

Pooh pooh pedestrian

 What is Netheena complaining about? Who walks these days anyway? One would think that there are more vehicles on the road than pedestrians. Well, one would think wrong.

There are more walkers and public transport users on the roads in India than there are cars. Mumbai has more walkers than Delhi, according to a 2005 World Bank study. Cycling and walking constitute 54 per cent of all trips in Ahmedabad, says a Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (CEPT-Ahmedabad) report; Chennai clocks 27 per cent walking trips while Bangalore has 26 per cent. Smaller cities and hill cities have a higher share of walking trips.

    So it is safe to say we are a country of walkers... safe? It is definitely NOT safe!

    “50 percent of road accident victims and fatalities turn out to be pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorised vehicle users in Indian cities,” said Nalin Sinha from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in his paper, Pedestrians, Cyclists and Non-motorised Transport in India: Road Safety Challenges and Possible Solutions.


Walking your way to good health

A study published in Social Science and Medicine in January 2013, shows that neighbourhoods with parks, shops, schools and offices within walking distance and well-connected by sidewalks, have healthier and fitter residents. This is not the first study to establish the link between living in areas that have high walkability and being fitter. Children from such neighbourhoods are less obese, claims a May 2012 study from American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Increasing walking time from 4 to 22 minutes a day, cuts heart-disease and diabetes risk by 14 per cent, claims a study from the San Francisco Bay area in the US.

“Walking and bicycling alone or in combination with public transit (active transport) are physical activities that can contribute to improved heart and respiratory health and reduce the risk of diabetes, depression, dementia, obesity and breast and colon cancer,” Neil Maizlish, one of the researchers who carried out the Bay area study, published in American Journal of Public Health in April, told Down to Earth magazine. “Physically active modes of transport can create a win-win situation: lower greenhouse emissions and reduce the burden of chronic diseases.”

Perilous by design

saHere is the truth of the matter:  We are all risking our lives. Every day. Just by going out on the roads, hoping to be able to walk. It is hard to believe these footpaths have actually been 'designed'.  Indian Road Congress (IRC), premier technical body of highway engineers set up in 1934, has set out design guidelines for roads and footpaths for public works and municipal corporations to follow. Minimum footpath width is set at 1.5 m to 4 m. But there is no word on footpath height, reveals Footfalls: Obstacle Course to Livable Cities, a monograph on the walkability (or lack thereof) of Indian roads compiled by CSE’s Right to Clean Air Campaign.

    “I have weak knees and arthritis. How am I expected to climb on to a 2-feet high footpath that even perfectly healthy, young people have to scramble on to?” said 72-year-old grandmother Sandhya Sharma from Bengaluru, “My children don’t let me go to the neighbourhood market any more because of the traffic. I feel so guilty taking the car and driver just to cross the road. Despite being a busy street in Indira Nagar, there are no benches or facilities for pedestrians. Does no one think about these things when they design these roads and footpaths?”

    Errr... most likely no, Sandhya. No urban body is legally bound to maintain a dedicated space for pedestrians. And IRC guidelines, experts say, are outdated and inadequate.

    The disabled and motor-challenged do not feature in this discussion at all. Their rights regarding access and transport facilities are guaranteed by the Disability (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, but have you ever come across a wheelchair-ramp on a foot over-bridge? Ever?

Pedestrian comparisons

 As pedestrians in India, we have resigned to our pedestrian fate, pun intended. We have accepted it as gospel truth that roads are made for vehicles. Only. The pedestrian must ‘borrow’ some space from vehicles to walk on the roads. Rise, humble pedestrian! Do not be bogged down by ‘car-wash’ and propaganda! There are cities around the world where the pedestrian has the right of way! Walking is encouraged by design, planners are told to work with pedestrians to design and update roads and pedestrian facilities. Designated car-free zones add to property value in these cities. Studies have confirmed the link between walkable neighbour­hoods and healthier residents. And, lesser cars and more public transport are climate-friendly too! It makes so much sense!

North America

sdAmerican cities have always recorded lesser walking than European cities. Why? Because of the ease and low cost of getting a driver’s license, lack of pedestrian infrastructure, and above all, the American lifestyle.  But the period after 2000 saw a change, mostly because more pedestrians died in motor accidents than motorists. States like Virginia, New York, Florida, and Washington in the US adopted traffic calming measures like roundabouts, mini circles, speed bumps and rumble strips, and coupled them with wider sidewalks, bus rapid transit systems. There are car-free zones in cities like Arlington in Virginia and Portland in Oregon.          
    SB 375 is a federal law in California that requires jobs, recreation and housing to be planned in a way that motivates Californians to drive less and walk more.

PHOTO:Sidewalks in Sausalito, California. Photograph by Cary Bass/CC



DREAM WALKING: What can be done about it?

fFrom a nightmare to a dream? Is it even possible? Well, it is definitely worth a shot. GT rounded up some pedestrian suggestions... by the pedestrian, for the pedestrian.

    “To encourage walkability within a city any public authority for that matter needs to think of compensating for metalled roads with pavements,” said Kanaka, “If the city is worth enjoying, make sure that you make it a pleasure for the people living in it to walk around. Traffic lights with pedestrian signals that actually work and banning vehicles in some areas can be some of the measures that the authorities can plan and build on as cities expand. When you build a new road, foresee its impact on the neighbourhood and plan for it... do not neglect the needs of a common man.”

    21-year-old college student, Anish Srikumar, from Bengaluru, is less passive about his walking problems. “Pedestrians, are treated like roadside gravel by planners and motorists!”, he exclaimed, “Design is flawed everywhere in our country. The guidelines must be revised after looking at some best practices around the world. Just designing and building is not enough, there should be regular monitoring also. I know that the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) has funds for doing all this in cities. Then why can’t authorities consult pedestrians and design roads for them? If cars and motor vehicles encroach on walking spaces, they should be fined heavily.”  

    We agree! Pedestrians must feel included; they form the majority on Indian roads after all.

    “Consider the requirements of all - children, old people and the disabled - when designing these roads,” said Sandhya, “Safe crossways, maybe with audible signals, would really help out people like me. How can you make cities liveable if a huge section of its population feels ignored and excluded?”

PHOTO: A messy sidewalk in Ashok Nagar, Bengaluru. Photograph by Ryan / CC

Roadside revolution

xc Believe it or not, but Rules of the Road Regulation 1989 say that in places where there are no traffic signals or zebra crossings, the pedestrians has the right of way! Have you ever experienced this? And take a bite of this – the Central Motor Vehicles Act prohibits motorists from entering pedestrian spaces! 

So policy exists, but the pedestrian still suffers. Why? Improved walkability in urban cities have proven benefits, then why are we still being foolish about footpaths?

We call for a roadside revolution! Enforce that policy, change that mindset – Cars cannot rule the road any more, the pedestrian demands his pound of flesh!

Photograph by Devyani Argal Dhariwal.

Homepage thumbnail by Kanaka Raghavan