Residents of an upmarket locality in South Chennai recently joined local shopkeepers in a protest. It was against the traffic arrangements that had made the entire area a series of one-ways, with no thought spared for pedestrians, resulting in a series of accidents. This is not an isolated happening in one area alone. Throughout the city, there is increasing resentment over the way those in charge of roads pander only to vehicular traffic, completely forgetting that pedestrians are an integral and important constituency as well.
A survey in May this year had pointed out that Chennai was the least pedestrian-friendly city in the country, ranking way below even Tier II towns. Tamil Nadu now has 17.5 million vehicles out of which 3.7 million (21%) are in Chennai city alone. This is an enormous burden for a metro that has not seen any significant increase in road space since several decades. In order to provide space for this burgeoning number of vehicles, it has, therefore, become necessary to sacrifice walking space, it would appear. Since 1996, when the idea was first mooted, Chennai has seen a 38% reduction in pavements. They have simply vanished in some places and, in others, they are not even a foot in width, making a mockery of what they are meant to be.
In this day and age, when most Indian cities are in a race to attract industrial (read foreign) investment, one of the key factors is the maximisation of traffic flow. Bangalore is now illustrated as an instance of what can go wrong when a city modernises without any investment in infrastructure. Having learnt – or failed to learn – a lesson from there, cities such as Chennai are continuously catering to vehicular traffic alone. Flyovers, underpasses and one-ways are the norm. Pedestrians do not get even a mention in the process. A token genuflection in the direction of the pedestrian has been the providing of some patently unusable foot-overbridges – and that is all!
Internationally, one-ways are accepted solutions for traffic bottlenecks. London city for one is full of them. But what is never sacrificed in these cities is the safety of the pedestrian. Thus, all one-ways have traffic lights with zebra crossings in front of them and, more importantly, these regulations are obeyed by vehicle users. In Chennai, as in most other Indian cities, one-ways are interpreted as motorways. There are no facilities for people to walk, traffic lights are disabled, and pedestrian-crossings erased. The idea is to maximise vehicle speeds on these stretches, leaving pedestrians to fend for themselves. Those who need to cross roads do so at their own risks and, given that there are no clearly marked places for crossing, they attempt to do so wherever they can, resulting in fatalities. Officially, Chennai had around 900 fatalities and 6000 accidents till August 2012! That is too high a figure by any standard.
What is ironic is that the vehicle-user, being transitory in nature, is rarely affected by the degradation in the immediate environment of a road. It is the pedestrian who, being the local person, is most prone to be the victim of problems of pollution, noise and reduction of space. Unfortunately, the pedestrians’ voices are not heard. After all, they are not opinion leaders.
Now it seems the pedestrians and stakeholders other than vehicle users have decided to come together. They have also, it appears, decided to take to the same method that gave vehicles their attention – causing traffic hold-ups. With road-blocks and protests that will slow down vehicle movement, city residents are trying to attract official attention. Hopefully it should work and someone in officialdom will begin rethinking on the way roads are operated.