With the exponential growth in the number of personal vehicles in Kerala in the last two decades, the pedestrian sidewalks started disappearing from our cities at an alarming rate. Most of the discussions on urban mobility have focussed on motorised transport options, which essentially prioritised the need for wider roads and flyovers to accommodate these vehicles. The phenomenon led to traffic congestion, pollution due to noise and fossil fuels, demand for more parking space, unproductive man hours etc, resulting in the lower ranking of the cities in the liveability index. The misguided approach by the planners and the leaders of the cities that the wider the roads are, the better, needs to be challenged and revisited.
The right to walk needs to be recognised as a fundamental right. Unfortunately, the urban facilities and infrastructure are not augmenting this right, due to the poor understanding of the urban space by the decision makers. According to a NATPAC study in Kochi, the walk-ability index for the city is 0.53, which is considered to be ‘average’ compared to the above-0.7 score for cities like New York, Boston, Singapore, Amsterdam and Paris. Walk-ability describes and measures the connectivity and quality of walkways and sidewalks in cities. It includes provisions for pedestrian amenities like street furniture, protected sidewalks with sufficient width (1.5–4.5 m), curbs, gentle grades, proper marking and demarcation from traffic lanes with buffers, well-maintained paved surface with gentle slopes and adequate sight distances around corners, and, at driveways, continuity of the sidewalk system, accessibility for the disabled etc. Proper shading and open spaces should complement the pedestrian infrastructure.Streets and pedestrian sidewalks should be properly illuminated ensuring safety and security of the commuters using them.
Imagine a city space with outdoor cafes, kiosks and gathering spots,instead of traffic chaos. In Indian cities, street plays and music are absent for want of street space. Nightlife and weekend celebrations could supplement leisure and entertainment. Roads should give way for street designs that could ensure seamless pedestrian walkways in the central business districts of the cities. Many argue that the pedestrian sidewalks may not be utilised even if it is provisioned but they fail to understand that the situation today in Indian cities cannot be a case study, as the walkways are notorious for obstructive electric wires, gaping manholes, sewerage and water pipes, which result in an unpleasant walking experience.
Globally, there is an increased acceptance for non-motorised public transport and mixed use of urban space to meet the challenges of climate change and increasing energy demands. The backbone of this archetype shift is the increased space for pedestrian infrastructure in the city space. It is more economical and environmental friendly in addition to the health benefits that it would accrue to the beneficiaries. Government policies, guidelines, strategies, plans and practices should complement each other in these times of changing realities. An empowered coordinating agency within the city government shall be bestowed with the authority to implement guidelines to improve the share of pedestrian mode to be the highest among all and the enforcement of penalisation for misuse of sidewalks for parking and vending. Street vendors could be accommodated into the street design plans by providing them sufficient space. The global experience of pedestrianised cities is noteworthy to consider in this regard –more employment generation in the neighbourhood of pedestrianised zones, manifold increase on returns,increased retail sales in the neighbourhood, increased purchasing power as a result of savings on fuel cost,increased number of tourists visiting the city as a result of branding and identity of the city and increased usage of public transport. It is time we reclaimed our walking spaces before it is too late.
D Dhanuraj is the Chairman of Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of CPPR.
This article is a reproduced version of article published in the New Indian Express “Time we reclaimed our walking spaces”