Certain things that I noticed about Chennai in the three years that I spent here are quite peculiar. First, busy roads are suddenly closed down, unannounced, for renovation or for a ‘VIP’ visit. All cities in India experience this, but in Chennai it happens too often to go unnoticed. Second, there is no clear definition of a ‘main road’. Buses, trucks and all kinds of other heavy motor vehicles seem to pass the narrowest of all roads with houses on either side. What is more shocking is to see kids playing on these roads, completely oblivious of the traffic around them. Third, this city doesn’t seem to invest in pukka roads. So one fine day when it rains, the road disappears and all that is left of it is potholes. In spite of all this, I love this city because of its beaches, its simplicity and its reasonably good public transport system.
One evening, after a tiring day at work, I decided to walk back home from Teynampet to Gandhinagar in Adyar. Starting at around 7pm, I expected to be home in an hour’s time. Teynampet to Gandhinagar should be around 6-7kms but the benefit of walking is that you can walk through one-ways, traffic jams and even blocked roads. So for all you know, walking back could in fact be faster than traveling in a motor vehicle within the city! While not much seems to be in place for the pedestrians in this city, it is made worse by the pedestrians themselves who mostly jaywalk. The end result is chaos, with sudden brakes being applied by vehicles and long leaps of narrow escapes made by pedestrians from one side of the road to the other. Since I had left office at the peak hour when most are travelling back home, I knew it was not exactly going to be a pleasant walk. The first leg of my walk was from my office to Nandanam. What really upset me during the walk were the uneven and discontinuous footpaths. Every commercial building/housing complex on my way seemed to have created their own walkway outside their premises, of different widths. Added to this, there were two wheelers parked on the footpath, which meant that I had to hop down to the main road in the middle of the traffic and then hop back to a new footpath of a different width and height. Finally, the foul smell during the walk just killed the fun. Men seem to urinate anywhere they feel like, as if all the walls and footpaths in Chennai are nothing but urinals. Obviously, the experience was far from pleasant.
But as I turned from Nandanam to Kotturpuram, I was pleasantly surprised. The area was well-lit, had a really nice park to my left, and the bridge built over Adyar river was constructed keeping in mind the pedestrians. However, expecting cycle lanes is a bit too idealistic here. I decided to walk via the Kotturpuram market which was very crowded, with traffic running in all directions. No sign of any footpath/signal on the way. And worse, street hawkers had encroached upon both the pedestrian space and even blocked half of the road. What I found even more astonishing is a temple right in the middle of the road! So devotees stand outside the temple during ‘archanai’, fully immersed, in the midst of the traffic and noise! Yet, walking from Kotturpuram to Gandhinagar was a fairly nice experience, and since the beach is closer to Adyar, the cool breeze calmed me down. It was 9pm when I reached home, thanks to the coffee break that I had taken at Nandanam CCD. Luckily, I used the washroom in CCD because all along my walk back home I could spot only one public convenience at Kotturpuram signal and that also was stinking from a distance of 200m. Only men who feel free to urinate anywhere in the city seemed to be using the public toilet. I realized I should have just walked past Kotturpuram and hit the IIT flyover to reach Gandhinagar rather than the stupid shortcut through the market. Even though the walk would have been longer, the roads are well lit and pedestrian friendly, at least till you hit the crossing at IIT flyover, a place where accidents occur on a daily basis.
When I got back home, I hurriedly went in for a shower because my eyes were burning and my feet felt extremely dirty. I made up my mind to wear walking shoes and fully covered clothes for my future walkathons.
Contributed by – Somya Sethuraman, a Researcher for the Transparent Chennai team of the Centre for Development Finance, IFMR