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Interpreting the informality of public roads and footpaths

September 26, 2013 by

In a recent blog, Ranjeet Joseph had described the efforts the Walkability team is making to create awareness about an inclusive street design, which is gender sensitive and where pedestrians, street vendors and other users share the space equitably. Vendors are often perceived as encroachers of essential public space by the authorities. Corporation of Chennai officials argue that widening footpaths will encourage informal markets to thrive on them, reducing the space available for pedestrians. Intuitively, spaces that have high pedestrian traffic, such as transport hubs, places of worship and institutions, tend to attract street vendors. However, it would be inaccurate to say that vendors are the only ones who encroach footpaths. Shops adjoining footpaths often extend their displays to footpaths, private vehicles park on footpaths, all jostling against telephone pillar boxes, electricity transformers, hoardings, and autorickshaw stands. Storm water drains, which are meant to be covered and designed to double up as footpaths, are left uncovered for large stretches. Yet, street vendors, an important part of creating a shared public ethos, typically face the ire of disgruntled pedestrians and planning officials.

In the past, cities in India were planned to include pedestrians and vendors, and had thoroughfares and public squares which catered to the commercial and social needs of the people. The informal bazaars on the streets of the Fort area in Mumbai, old Hyderabad and the planned city of Jaipur remain examples of inclusive planning which is not practised in modern days. But Indian cities are not the only ones which are the battling grounds between pedestrians and vendors, and it is obvious that what we need is a combination of regulation and enforcement, along with an approach to planning which is inclusive of the different uses of streets.

Image 1: Mumbai’s pedestrianised shopping zones

Image 2: Pedestrian lanes abut shop fronts in Jaipur

The multi-faceted use of streets, a measure of vibrancy, is often misunderstood as chaos and will remain so unless authorities plan for the unplanned. Fortunately, the parliament recently approved the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012, which aims to protect street vendors’ rights to livelihoods, mandates local authorities to restructure the road and pedestrian space to accommodate vendors. However, legislations need to be accompanied by planning, regulation and enforcement.

A lot has been reported about the deteriorating and diminishing footpaths, but the question of prioritising people over motor vehicles remains neglected. Thirteen percent of Chennai’s land is used for roads, not all of them have footpaths. But this space is still insufficient for the number of vehicles in the city, something that is not regulated. Footpaths are reduced in the course of widening roads and building flyovers, and existing fixtures such as utility boxes and hoardings occupy much of the remaining space, forcing pedestrians to walk on the carriageway thus putting their lives at risk and also slowing down traffic. As a result, pedestrians are the worst affected in road accidents, as reflected in the data collected and maintained by the Chennai City Traffic Police. Rather than increase the number and space for roads, the government needs to discourage people from buying more private vehicles and improve the public transport network and facilities.

The city also needs a stringent parking policy to control unauthorised street parking that results from the non-adherence of parking norms by builders. Buildings not only encroach road and footpath space, but also do not adequately cater to the need for parking within the premises. On-street parking takes away anywhere between 15 and 60 percent portion of the road width. In addition, the parking charges in the city are illogically low and cannot be equated to the rental value of the surrounding real estate. Why should the government subsidise crucial public space for parking?

The Corporation of Chennai should also designate space to approved autorickshaw unions and public utility infrastructure, something that would require the local authority to coordinate with other public agencies that install or regulate these services. Utility boxes, transformers and street lamps should be organised such that they are not obstacles for pedestrian movement. Local officials are not able to prevent encroachments by other public agencies either, or enforce legal orders such as the Supreme Court’s ban on shrines and statues on public roads. They should also designate space for pandhals or tents during festivals so that they do not become obstructions to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. If we could resolve these recurring problems, the restructuring of roads and maintenance of footpaths would occur efficiently and smoothly.

Instead, the inadequate footpath space places pedestrians in direct conflict with vendors. Vendors are an important part of the informal market economy of any city and pedestrians are also consumers, which is why vendors are there in the first place. Unfortunately, inadequate attention has been paid to incorporate informal economic activities into official planning processes, and vendors have been marginalised by existing policies, which have tended to be elitist and exclusive to certain kinds of uses. They lack adequate access to formal markets and jobs, and also find it difficult to obtain vending licenses and space in the city. Often the only idea proposed and implemented has been multi-storeyed retail spaces, which is at complete conflict with the needs and rationale of street vending.

We have been involved with the design of the footpath along 4th Avenue in Anna Nagar, where both authorities and residents questioned the widening of footpath because they believe that it would encourage vending and result in encroachment. While we were able to convince the contractor and officials from the Corporation about the need to widen the footpath as per design, it has been an uphill task to get local residents to participate in multi-stakeholder meetings. Vendors have as much a right to the city as pedestrians, and the symbiotic relation between pedestrians and street vendors needs to be brought to the fore when creating safe and inclusive public spaces.

Written by Roshan Toshniwal, researcher, Transparent Chennai