Last Tango for the pedestrian? To have smart cities, first turn our mean streets into meaningful ones

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Bachi Karkaria


For pedestrians, every Indian city is paved with hellish intentions. Or, worse, not paved at all. The Smart Cities project, rolled out in 2015 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aims to ‘create citizen-friendly and sustainable’ urban spaces. This is where 34% of Indians already lived in 2017 according to the World Bank, and the aspirational (or impoverished) are rushing there by the hour.

But they could be mowed down. Recently published statistics on pedestrian deaths reveal how ill-served every citizen is. Yes, every, because bar the most obscenely pampered, don’t all of us have to walk at some point on the killer street?

The Union transport ministry’s 2018 road accidents report, released this November 15, says 62 pedestrians died every day. The all-India total was 12,330. If these figures are unconscionable, do note that they’re an 84% rise since 2014.

West Bengal registered the highest pedestrian fatalities last year, 2,618. Incidentally it’s the only state which has excluded itself from the Smart Cities project. Its sole major city, Kolkata, may have historically been an urban disaster. But what excuse for the swaggering centres of Maharashtra? The state ranked No 2 with 2,510, which breaks down to seven pedestrians killed every day.

Illustration: Ajit Ninan

So, would you blame this largest and most vulnerable group for saying ‘My foot!’ to the global mantra that pedestrians have first rights to the road? They would be justified in feeling they have none at all. They are in double jeopardy: up against individual rashness and the soporific mass of official indifference. Triple actually if you count the gross inadequacy of public transport.

The each-man-for-himself belligerence has grown in tandem with traffic congestion. Mumbai is the worst, with private car density having deepened 23% since 2016; that’s 10.6 lakh cars out of a total 37 lakh vehicles, or 530 of them per km. Even scarier is the 102% rise in two wheelers, partly aided by the removal of octroi; 22 lakh of these hell’s angels break bones and rules with equal disregard.

The chalta hai attitude of municipal functionaries/ traffic police most affects the beleaguered chalney-walla. S/he is equally at the mercy of cities/ policies designed for automotive rather than human mobility. Civic activists decry the absence of subways for pedestrians. Why? They should walk in the open air communing with the city, and the cars should whiz underground.

Clearly, no one has heard of UN Environment’s ‘Share The Road’ programme which supports developing countries in infrastructure for eco-friendly pedestrians and cyclists. Pavements are a farce, forcing onto the deadly carriageway the very people whose safety they’re built for. They’re unusable thanks to hawkers, encroachments and rubble.

Zebra crossings might as well be named after the mythical unicorn. Traffic lights change too fast. In the resulting vicious circle, pedestrians themselves add to the bedlam of the quotidian commute, whether on wheels or feet.

Global car-free days or initiatives such as the TOI’s Happy Streets on winter Sundays provide a tantalising glimpse of the stress/ pollution free, community-cementing heaven that cities can be. But, much of this occasional Utopia can be routinely gained by pedestrianising old commercial hubs which are now the worst off in manic congestion.

The most charming of European city squares are so because, liberated from the frenzy of cars, they allow a leisurely contemplation of their history and, yes, this has also boosted business for the dozens of symbiotic boutiques and cafes. Intensely urbane Oxford street has benefited from allowing only the iconic red London buses and taxis. Decades ago in Denver, i marvelled at the free light-rail shuttle to and from the city centre, nothing else allowed or needed.

Mostly, however, it’s not practical to have No Entry signs for vehicles. In my limited experience, the most striking example of man-machine coexistence is Barcelona’s Ramblas. The broad central length is reserved for pedestrians, the cars are relegated to the sides. This reversal shows the infinite possibilities of what a street can be: not just a thoroughfare but a destination.

Town planners need to be less territorial, and coopt the imagination of our globally feted conservation architects. Mumbai’s Rampart Row is fully pedestrianised during the Kala Ghoda festival here. Why not make this a year-round arrangement for the vibrant hub of cool hang out spaces organically developing in its backyard? It would be an easy, local restorative for a grand metropolis sliding visibly into decline.

True, this exclusive enclave isn’t where Mumbai’s harried pedestrians daily dodge death. But it could be modified for the old squat-spots of raucous commerce, and for the proliferating newer ones where the insatiable maw of ‘market forces’ swallows every crumb of order.

Smart-city Aligarh could get a Street-plan Named Desire with the projected ‘expansive footpaths, shaded spaces and pause points of book and coffee shops’. The blueprint includes ‘multi-modal streets’ which will free up space for commerce as well as safe, convenient and sustainable options for pedestrians and vehicles.

The smart green street design dangles the promise of ‘public places which provide room for sociocultural interaction and allow people to experience a city intimately’. As of now, the interaction is only of obscenities spat out from car windows, and the close encounter is that of the pedestrian with imminent death. Sad. Unacceptable.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

via TOI Blog

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