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Keep walking? You bet
A nation that may have arisen in one famously long walk to Dandi 80 years ago appears to have no place for those who walk in its leading cities now. Pedestrians, it seems, are the new untouchables for Indian city administrators.
And they may even be sliding to forgotten status in most new plans to bolster urban transport infrastructure, say stunned transport experts. Yet, pedestrians account for over half of all commuters in every major Indian city, which makes for a delicious irony only karmic-minded Indians could shrug off.
Rohit Baluja, who heads IRTE, a Delhi-based traffic safety organisation, points out that in an accident-prone nation (India leads the world in annual traffic fatalities) it is pedestrians and cyclists who bear the brunt of most mishaps. Over 78 per cent of annual road accident fatalities in Mumbai, for instance, are pedestrians. Moreover, such estimates don't include serious life-impairing injuries that many more sustain everyday on our roads.
Research also shows that about half of 'walking trips' in cities cover less than 2 km, which means pedestrians often face grave dangers when just trying to go about daily chores or commuting to and from public transport options. Several major road crossings in India witness pedestrian traffic rates of over 10, 000 an hour on weekdays.
Madhav Badami, of the School of Urban Planning at Canada's McGill University, feels our pedestrian environment is "so severely vitiated that walking, the most natural of human activities, has become a hazardous activity". He further charges governments of willful disregard. "Nonmotorised modes of transport (walking, cycling) are not only ignored but actively discriminated against in Indian urban transport policy, " he says.
It is a charge Baluja echoes, as do transport planning insiders. Scant attention is paid to building footpaths, subways, over-bridges and other 'grade-separated carriageways' for pedestrians, they say. Delhi's AIIMS intersection, for instance, a clover-leaf flyover junction, is a veritable death trap for people looking to walk to nearby markets merely 500 metres away. The prestigious multi-crore project appears not to have even considered pedestrian needs right outside India's largest government hospital, which attracts thousands.
Many such instances of callous neglect in transport design litter every Indian city. One expert laments that only when lives are lost on new high-speed 'expressways' do engineers look to make crossings and other grade-separated facilities for pedestrians and cyclists. And existing arrangements are also being compromised, according to N Ranganathan, a veteran urban planner and transport researcher. He lists how road engineers now routinely gobble up footpath space when widening roads with little by way of compensation. Ranganathan also points to how footpaths are often misused (parking, squatting) and even abused (encroachments, garbage). Roundabouts, he says, are even worse for pedestrians, as motorists rarely honour zebra crossings. "Behavioural correction and enforcement is necessary in every aspect of road transport if we are to improve safety, " he says. This would apply to pedestrians, too, as many may still be found walking on the few roads that sport wide, clean pavements earmarked for walking.
The laws may also reflect our collective disre gard of our own fundamental right to walk in our cities. Baluja argues that in a country where there's a Motor Vehicles Act to regulate that form of transport, there's no Road Traffic Act - which means no responsibility is defined in law for pedestrians. "There are no VIPs among pedestrians in India for their rights to matter, " he states caustically.
Little wonder then that Badami is emphatic that "pedestrians have been rendered third class citizens in India, a nation of pedestrians".
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