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Whose Footpath is it Anyway

May 18, 2010

For me, walking is freedom, it’s liberation. Earlier, when I got tired of staring at the computer or a book, I would always go out and take a walk. A long quiet walk to refresh my mind, let the thoughts flow freely and treat my eyes to the lush green surroundings. For me, walking is also social equity, a time when people from various walks of life walk together on the same platform.

I thought that walking was one of my birthrights, that nobody had the authority to deprive me of it. But, all that was before they killed the greenery around me and reduced the width of the footpath to build a new flyover next to my house. When I asked why, they said that it was an answer to the heavy traffic problem in the area. Now, I prefer staying in the enclosed walls of my house, for my safety and to avoid the noise and pollution from the increased traffic flow in my vicinity. I am a citizen of Chennai and I am deeply disturbed by the loss of walking space within the city. How many of us share a similar story? Countless, is my guess.

Reports confirm that increasing traffic leads to increasing number of road accidents, increased noise, injuries, pollution and congestion.1 Chennai has been no exception and has been facing similar consequences because of the increased traffic flow within the city.

A World Bank report states that in developing cities across the globe, walkers comprise over a third of the modal share of all trips made.2 In Chennai as well, the same ratio applies, where, out of a 100 people, 30 make their trips by walking. Yet, development projects for the transport sector have largely focused on flyovers, bridges, connecting roads, highways, and public and private modes of transport. Footpaths and pedestrians get almost no mention in these projects, nor in city budgets. And even if they do get a mention, they are largely ignored when transport plans are executed. When we were looking for data for the Transparent Chennai map on pedestrians, the only information that we could find was on the budget allocation (zone-wise) for footpaths and works completed/in progress (just one figure). However, there is no way of verifying if the money is actually spent on such works and whether they are being spent judiciously. If the above could be verified, then we could get down to the next level of checking the quality of these footpaths. However, even a layman like me can tell you the worsening condition of the footpaths within the city.

This is pretty surprising considering that each and every one of us is a pedestrian at some point of time or the other. Why then are road transport projects not pedestrian centric? How is a flyover built without taking into consideration the loss of walking space? Norms specify that footpaths should not be less than 1.5m in residential streets and 3.0m on major roads with commercial activities. Why don’t we see these norms being implemented? The City Development Plan for Chennai Metropolitan Area confirms that capacity of almost all roads in the present system is reduced due to poor quality of riding surface, inadequate pedestrian pavement, poor lighting conditions and lack of properly designed intersections. Permanent and temporary encroachment of footpaths and carriageways has worsened the situation. If this isn’t enough to justify the need for a pedestrian friendly city, then one could also look at the increasing pollution levels within the city.

Reports state that the air pollution levels in Chennai are well above permissible limits (suspended particulate matter (SPM) ranging from 264 to 451 against the permissible limit of 200, carbon monoxide (CO) ranging from 1908 to 4198 μ-g/m3 against the permissible limit of 2000), leading to health hazards that none of the citizens can escape.

It is important for the city to amend the existing transport plans to give utmost importance to the interests of pedestrians and bicyclists which constitute the majority within the city. If majority of the commuters within the city comprise of walkers and bicyclists, then there is no reason as to why the interests of these sections of the society should go largely ignored.

Contributed by – Somya Sethuraman, a Researcher for the Transparent Chennai team of the Centre for Development Finance, IFMR

1 Badami, MG. (2009) “Urban Transport Policy as if People and the Environment Mattered: Pedestrian Accessibility the First Step” Economic and Political Weekly, Special Articles, August 15 2009
2“Walk Urban, Demand, Constraints and Measurement of the Urban Pedestrian Environment”, The World Bank Group, Transport Papers, April 2008