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Friday , 24 May 2024

Can we make Indian cities walkable?

Geetam Tiwari, Professor, Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi

India is a land of walkers. An estimated 45 million walk to work daily, compared with a mere 54 lakhs who use motorised personal transport.   However, the infrastructure that is in place for road users is skewed against non-motorised transport (NMT), either pushing pedestrians to the margins of the road networks, or even worse, compelling them to jostle for space with motor vehicles, thereby exposing them to injury or death. Geetam Tiwari, Professor, Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi points out that the major corrective required is to keep the pedestrians in mind when designing roads.

The available data shows that 31 percent of Indian workers in urban areas walk to work.  The proportion of women walking to work is substantially higher than men – 55 percent vs 28 percent. Walking trips are higher in rural areas than in urban areas, where these trips constitute 31 percent for all workers and 46 percent for women workers.

Moreover, a large proportion of people who walk to work are ‘captive pedestrians’ as they do not have access to any other mode of travel, primarily because of low income. Therefore, despite hostile road conditions because of motorised traffic and the poor quality of pedestrian paths, the proportion of walk trips remains high in all Indian cities.

Cost of walking in Indian cities

Historically, Indian cities evolved as walking cities. From the 1960s onwards, major cities initiated the exercise of preparing master plans in India. The discussion on traffic problems continued to focus on traffic congestion and had no mention of conflicts & problems faced by pedestrians or bicyclists. Between the 1970s and the 1980s, the focus shifted to preparing Comprehensive Traffic and Transport Studies (CTTS) commissioned by city administrations to find solutions to traffic congestion at specific roads and junctions in their cities.

In 2006, the first National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) was adopted by the Government of India; the policy asked for a revision of several standards in order to achieve this vision. From 2014 onwards, the Smart Cities Mission led to the formation of Special Purpose Vehicles and appointment of CEOs for efficient implementation. Many cities have been designated “Smart Cities”. The programme began with 100 cities, with completion dates for the projects set between 2019
and 2023.

There are examples from Chennai (Thyagaraya Nagar Plaza), Bengaluru (Church Street), Delhi (Chandni Chowk) where small road stretches have become pedestrianised at least in certain time of the day. However, no city has a road map for achieving a complete city-wide network for pedestrian friendly streets. An ever-increasing number of cars and motorised two-wheelers encourage the construction of large numbers of flyovers/grade separators to facilitate signal-free movement for motorised vehicles, exposing pedestrians to greater risk. A significant number of pedestrians are willing to take risks in both before and after situations.

The absence of signals makes pedestrians act independently, resulting in rash and erratic risk-taking behaviour. The variability in the speeds of all categories of vehicles has increased after the construction of grade separators, while the waiting time of pedestrians at the starting point of a crossing has also increased. The correlation between waiting times and gaps acceptable by pedestrians shows that after a certain time of waiting, pedestrians become impatient and seek out even small gaps in the vehicular flow to cross the road.

Pedestrians give higher priority to convenience and saving time rather than to road safety, a behavioural trait that should be considered by policymakers, planners, and engineers while planning to promote urban traffic and transport infrastructure. A large number of Foot Over Bridges (FOBs) and subways continue to be created to ensure safe pedestrian crossings, despite research studies repeatedly showing that FOBs and subways are neither comfortable nor convenient for most pedestrians.

The usage of such facilities remains low, and often the area near FOBs and flyovers become accident black spots because pedestrians crossing the road at such locations are exposed to high-speed motorised traffic.

Safe pedestrian crossings can be easily ensured by controlling the speed of motorised traffic. This can be most effectively achieved by appropriate use of rumble strips and speed calming humps. On non-arterial roads, small round-abouts have been found to be very effective in controlling vehicular speed and ensuring safety.

Why pedestrian safety remains a challenge?

In recent times with more automation, computational power and technology to collect large amount of data, the results regarding pedestrian crossing behaviour, safe gap acceptance and speed have remained constant across different countries. Recent studies have reported pedestrians facing high risks near bus stops in urban areas. Some new emerging patterns of pedestrian crashes which have not been reported include fatalities of pedestrian on access control expressways in India and those waiting along the shoulder of a high-speed road to board buses.

Opportunities for improving pedestrian safety and urban walkability

The National Institution for Transforming India has been assigned the role of overseeing the implementation of Sustainable Develpment Goals (SDGs)in the country. The NITI Aayog works closely with the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), which is accountable for the development of the baseline data on the National Indicator Framework, all Union Ministries, States and Union Territories, international development organisations such as the UN system, think tanks, and civil society organisations in driving the adoption, implementation, and monitoring of the SDG agenda.

At least three of the 17 SDGs declared by the UN in 2016 can be met by improving walkability in Indian cities.

In addition, by providing accessibility to public transport, India would also meet a higher mode share of public transport. It would also mean reduced dependence on private motorised modes resulting in fuel savings and decline in the levels of air pollution. The Vision Zero policy propagated by Sweden in the late 1990s aims to ensure that none should be killed or injured due to traffic accidents and, therefore, the transport system should be designed in a way that fatal or serious injuries do not occur. This means that safety is more important than other issues in the road transport system (except for health-related environmental issues). Mobility, therefore, should flow from safety and cannot be obtained at the expense of safety.

Current traffic safety science suggests that if road users do not take their share of the responsibility, for example, due to a lack of knowledge or competence, or if personal injuries occur for other reasons that lead to risk, the system designers (road designers) must take further measures to prevent people from being killed or seriously injured. This is consistent with the Vision Zero theory, which suggests that humans have limitations in perception, diligence, and other driving-related performance that are predictable and inevitable. These natural limitations constitute the primary reason for increased responsibility by system designers.

How can India have walkable cities?

Making cities walkable requires a strong policy framework guiding investments and implementation of planning and design guidelines. For this to be effectively translated to reality, interventions are required at various levels.

Policy framework: As urban transport is a State subject, the NUTP has to be adopted at a State or city level or an urban transport policy framework has to be developed and mandated by the State or city level government. Chennai, Pune and Coimbatore have attempted this. However, the policy framework and the revised standards are not mandated by any law. Therefore, the impact of the NMT policy has not been achieved as desired. A mandatory State-level policy guiding all the cities in the State in preparing a road map for achieving pedestrian friendly (sustainable urban transport compliance) seems necessary. The small pilot projects of pedestrian friendly streets that are currently underway cannot be scaled up in the absence of a State Urban Transport Policy adopted by the State Legislature.

Planning and design guidelines: In the last decade, many street design guidelines have become available to guide city-engineers. The Indian Roads Congress has revised the Urban Street Design Guidelines. Global best practices have been introduced by NGOs working in a few cities in India. However, city-engineers and planners often need city-specific guidelines. Preparation and implementation of city-specific guidelines require a combination of civil engineering and design skills of architects. Public works department and municipalities should induct designers and planners to work closely with civil engineers to make pedestrian-friendly streets. Compliance with current street design guidelines should be made mandatory by law. Traffic enforcement agencies also have to be guided to ensure pedestrian safety and compliance to pedestrian requirements over motorised traffic.

Some immediate interventions: Specific interventions can be implemented with immediate effect such as restricting free left turns at signalised intersections and speed compliance of motorised vehicles on arterial roads by better enforcement through red light camera and police monitoring. The installation of speed tables at all intersections on non-arterial roads to enforce the 30km/h speed limit is also an immediately possible intervention. In intersections of small towns, well-designed small round-abouts can be constructed to ensure speed compliance and smooth flow of traffic. Similarly, rural road junctions can have a combination of rumble strips and speed humps.

Monitoring progress: City administration has to create a monitoring mechanism to evaluate the progress of implementing walkability guidelines. This can be on the lines of SDG monitoring mechanisms by the NITI Aayog. At the city level, administrative units should be set up whose responsibility is to evaluate various indicators of walkability and monitor the progress of pedestrian compliant infrastructure implementation.

Fresh thought has to be given to how the SDGs can be used to influence day-to-day decisions. The SDGs can also be a part of the outcome-based budget of municipalities in order to make them a priority.

More than anything else, citizens’ engagement is a primary requirement and has been discussed in many policy documents.

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