Come out and claim the road

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

IllustrationI write this column from my bed, recovering from an accident that broke my bones. I was hit by a speeding car when cycling. The car fled the scene, leaving me bleeding on the road. This is what happens again and again, in every city of our country, on every road as we plan without care for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. These are the invisible users. They die doing nothing more than the most ordinary thing like crossing a road. I was more fortunate. Two cars stopped, strangers helped me and took me to hospital. I got treatment. I will be back fighting fit.

And this is one battle that needs our combined attention. We cannot lose the space to walk and cycle. Since my accident, relatives and friends all have berated me for being so reckless as to cycle on Delhi’s roads. They are right. We have built the city roads only for cars. They rule the road. There are no dedicated lanes for cycles and sidewalks. The little stretches that do exist are either dirty or taken over by parked cars. Roads are for cars. The rest don’t matter.

But cycling and walking are difficult not just because of poor planning. It is also because of our mindset that only those who move in a car have a status and road rights. Anyone who walks or cycles is poor, wretched and destined to be marginalised, if not obliterated.

This is what must change. We have no option but to reinvent mobility, as I keep repeating. This week toxic smog in Delhi has reached a new peak. Last month the World Health Organization declared air pollutants a human carcinogen. We must realize that this pollution is not acceptable. It is killing us, and no longer softly or slowly. But if we are serious about combating air pollution then we have no option but to think of restraining the growth of cars. Learn how to move people not cars.

When Centre for Science and Environment began its campaign against air pollution in the mid-1990s, it did everything conventional. It pushed to clean up the quality of fuel; improved emission standards of vehicles; got inspectional and maintenance systems for checking tailpipe emissions in place. It also pushed a leapfrog solution—transition to compressed natural gas (CNG) for gross polluting vehicles like diesel buses and two-stroke autorickshaws. All that made a difference. There is no question that the quality of air would have been even worse, even more deadly, without these steps.

But this is not good enough. We soon realised this. Pollution levels are rising again, inexorably and inevitably. All research points to one cause and one big solution: building transport systems differently. We also have the option of doing this. We have still not motorised; still not built every flyover or four-lane road. Most importantly, most of India still takes the bus, walks or cycles—in many cities as much as 20 per cent population bikes. We do this because we are poor. Now the challenge is to reinvent city planning so that we can do this as we become rich.

For the past few years this is exactly what we have been working on—how to bring back integrated and safe public transport options to our cities, so that even if we own a car, we don’t have to drive it. But the keyword is integration. We can build a metro or get new buses, but if we do not have last mile connectivity, then it will still not work. It has to be seamless and effortless. That is why we need to think differently.

This is where we are failing. Today, there is talk of transport, even cycling and needs of pedestrians. But it is empty talk. Every time there is an attempt to take a part of the existing road and convert it into a cycle track, it is virulently opposed. The argument is it will take away space from cars and add to congestion. But that is exactly what we need to do; reduce lanes for cars and add space for buses, cycles and pedestrians. This is the only way to get out of the ever-growing car-bulge on roads.

This takes courage of conviction. In our overcrowded and chaotic roads, planning for cycle tracks and keeping sidewalks clean and clear will take lots of effort. I have absolutely no illusion that this will be easy to plan or to implement. But why should that deter us? The rest of the world has learnt successfully to rework road space so that it provides dignity and accessibility to cyclists and pedestrians. They have learnt to restrict space for cars and yet build extremely liveable cites.

Just think of the double bonus: clean air by getting rid of the most noxious source of pollution and healthy bodies by having the option of getting some exercise while commuting. This is what we have to fight for. And we will. I hope all of you will join us in making the right to cycle and walk with safety non-negotiable.

PS: Many thanks to the kind strangers who took me to hospital and the excellent doctors at the AIIMS Trauma Centre to whom I owe my life.

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  • Well well well, even in an

    Well well well, even in an inconvenient situation u were compelled to undergo didn't stop u from doing good for the society.

    Yes I definitely join hand in moving cycle!!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Wishing you a speedy recovery

    Wishing you a speedy recovery mam.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • There is no way that cyclists

    There is no way that cyclists and cars can happily coexist on the roads when personal motorised transport is growing exponentially at a rate of 14% every year. That is doubling every five years.

    Where's the road space, where's the oil and where's the carbon budget for all those cars? The only lasting solution is to put restrictions on car ownership as other places like Beijing, Singapore and Denmark have done. I had suggested this to Anumita back in 2008 or 9 after a presentation by her at an event. You've got to start talking about phasing out personal transport.

    Sad and unfortunate that after more than two decades of work in this area CSE is yet to come to terms with this undeniable argument. Will be easier if you think without being weighed down by the ideology of growth.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Wish you a speedy recovery;

    Wish you a speedy recovery; yes we need to change the mindset of road planners and road users as well. Its sad that the carwala fled the site leaving you behind injured and bleeding.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Ma'am Sunita Ji, I thank God

    Ma'am Sunita Ji,
    I thank God you are fine..I pray, your will power will over power everything in the way.
    Your spirit of fighting for cause even from sick bed for common man is something we mortals rarely see. You have echoed the concerns and challenges before genuine city planners and policy makers. To prove the point, you had to come biking on the deadly road of this capital city!
    And you wrote your first editorial after short absence, on same issue with bluntness and commitment.
    Sunita Ji, what clan you belong to..?
    Please take care..
    Manohar V. Korgaonkar

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita, I was really sad

    Dear Sunita,

    I was really sad to hear that you had such a terrible accident. I wish you a fast and full recovery. It takes a lot of courage to ride the streets of Delhi. Let's hope your ordeal and the continued work of CSE will create safer and more liveable cities for cyclists and pedestrians. In the Netherlands we needed a broad popular outcry "stop the child murder" in the early 1970's before politicians started to realise we were doing it all wrong, since then it took 40 years of continued effort to be where we are now.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Ms. Sunita Narain in her

    Ms. Sunita Narain in her Editorial has given few suggestions to reclaim the roads for pedestrians and cyclists. I agree that we must do it for the environment and better future. But the Editorial has missed the main point, according to me.
    People drive recklessly in most places in the country and also in Delhi because they are confident that even if they are caught, nothing will happen to them. One 100 rupee note will do the trick. The Traffic person is always interested in 'settling the issue'. No doubt he/she takes out the Challan Book and shows as if he/she is writing the Challan. But nothing is written. There is wait for the person involved in traffic violation to offer the price. If it is adequate, the Challan book is kept aside and the matter is 'settled'. In Delhi this is the norm. At other smaller places first of all there is no one to challenge for violations. There is no concept of Traffic rules. If some accident takes place, the matter is 'settled' and the lion's share goes to the police. The victim gets peanuts.
    Till the time this scenario changes, the weak will continue to suffer. Cyclists and pedestrians are the weakest on the roads, irrespective of the fact that persons like Ms. Narain may at times opt for cycling.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Accidents and stay in

    Accidents and stay in Hospital are always an experience. Physical and mental as well. Less than an year ago I too had an accident and broke the bones of my feet hip and arm. Thanks to the friends, unknown people who helped, the Doctors and above all the Medical Science that I am back to normal.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • we require not only cycle

    we require not only cycle tracks but also a road culture in which people behave well on road(we have bikes riding on cycle tracks and other traffic violations. Lets join cycle-pedestrian initiative.
    and get well soon to cycle again.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Any accident and any injury

    Any accident and any injury to anyone is unfortunate. That said, the news papers said that you were hit by a car that was reversing. Now, a car can not be "speeding" in the reverse gear. What is the true position?

    Also, it is not necessary that the heavier vehicle was at fault, though in India that is the traditional view. Has it been established who was at fault ? Was the car driver careless, or were you careless ?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • So happy to learn that u r

    So happy to learn that u r recovering fast and back in action. The country needs you urgently.

    Navi Mumbai is a planned city (in early 1970's), but the planners are NOT learning from other cities. Provision for pedestrian-crossing, walks, zebra lines, et al, are non existent; cycle tracks planned/allocated in Vashi, one of the nodes, are disbanded and now occupied by parked vehicles and hawkers. Public transport is ok, but there is scope for improvement as land is still available. But commuting to Mumbai, a good 30 kms, is hell in both bus and train.
    Indian cities can take a re-look at New York's public transport: excellent metro and bus, child- and seniors-friendly footpaths with slopes to allow smooth movements of trolleys and baby strollers. Even the rich and mobile do NOT use their cars in the city.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Even in the late 1980's, in

    Even in the late 1980's, in the much smaller city of Pune, when I was in C-DAC, Pune, when I tried declining my official car once a week and cycling from my home in Deccan Gymkhana to Pune University, I had similar experiences and soon abandoned cycling.

    The solution I proposed (in a letter to Times of India, long ago) is simple. Roads are common property, and should therefore be shared in proportion to the users. That means if 40% of road users are pedestrians, cyclists or bus users, 40% of the road should be for them. The cars and motorcycles can take the remaining lane. The state will not give in easily, so people need to use their power as citizens. Let us say they can start by physically stopping motorcyclists who drive on footpaths in Delhi, or dismantle shops which invade the footpath, and so on.

    Why don't you lead such a movement when you are back in action?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Bravo Sunita for trying to

    Bravo Sunita for trying to cycle and God bless you for getting back to life and leading the battle for reclaiming roads for the common people like us and therefore I would like to take on the struggle to recover footpaths and pavements for the use of pedestrians and then add on to it a dedicated space on our roads for cyclists.

    You must know that in this past month London lost 9 people on London's roads due to HGV vehicles and mayor Boris has been one person who has been advocating the use of bike on London's roads. Should we not also do that in New Delhi?

    How about going for emission charges for cars used in central Delhi?
    Clear our footpath pavements of all encroachments should be first on our list.
    Sincerely
    Minotidi
    Prof Minoti Chakravarty-Kaul

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • You are extremely lucky that

    You are extremely lucky that you have survived, had it been anybody else, the person would have been dead long back. Best of luck to you and wish you complete recovery.
    We are living in a world of contradictions that to expect anything sane is day dreaming. When growth is measured by number of cars and the cars will need space and fuel leading to eating up the space for cycles and pedestrians and also contributing to loss in air quality.
    Even if by some magic hydrogen appears as fuel in near future, where we will get space.

    The issue is change in life style and living with minimum, unless that happens, I am afraid we have to live with it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • You are extremely lucky that

    You are extremely lucky that you have survived, had it been anybody else, the person would have been dead long back. Best of luck to you and wish you complete recovery.
    We are living in a world of contradictions that to expect anything sane is day dreaming. When growth is measured by number of cars and the cars will need space and fuel leading to eating up the space for cycles and pedestrians and also contributing to loss in air quality.
    Even if by some magic hydrogen appears as fuel in near future, where we will get space.

    The issue is change in life style and living with minimum, unless that happens, I am afraid we have to live with it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunita Ma'am, I'm sorry to

    Hi Sunita Ma'am,

    I'm sorry to hear about the tragedy. I pray and wish you a speedy and complete recovery.

    Everyone wishes to become your dream come true. Person like you can change it as you have already done several things in the past. We shall support you and your endeavour to change the road culture. To me it is not only the politicians who has to change but also each and every citizens should have self responsibility on driving ethics, respecting the pedestrians and cyclists. Leave alone, European or American countries, which has got separate lanes for pedestrians and cyclists but even a busy Tehran (Iran) roads have got not only separate lanes for pedestrians but also I've seen an open channel on both sides of the urban road wherein the clean water is flowing 24x7 and the trees are planted on the channels. The water is being served both for trees as well as the sound of the running water is one of the most mesmerizing thing I ever heard in an Urban Environment.

    I think our problem is mainly because of too many Population. Unless we control that it would be difficult to make your dream coming true.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Madam, Wishing you a speedy

    Madam,
    Wishing you a speedy total recovery

    Dr Ram
    Head ( Climate Change Development)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunitaji, I was shocked

    Dear Sunitaji, I was shocked to learn from newspaper reports about your accident, but was confident that you will get the best medical attention and recover soon. Recover soon you will, as you have the fighting spirit. One thing I was sure of when I read the news of your accident - that now we have a good chance in this city, and also in the country, to have safe space for cyclists and pedestrians on city roads. The British planned the city well with cycle tracks and pavements, but we have allowed cars to occupy the cycle tracks and allowed all kinds of activities and rubbish to occupy pavements. Where would the cyclists and pedestrians go - except on to the dangerous roads of Delhi. These are issues the answers to which are complex and involves a whole lot of institutions and actors, not the least of which are the people themselves. I do hope that collectively we will be able to fight for the right to cycle and walk safely. Wish you a speedy recovery. Usha

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Very concerned to know about

    Very concerned to know about the mishappening.
    We met in the Netherlands during event organized by WASTE.
    Take care and have a speedy recovery
    REGARDS AND BEST WISHES
    REHAN AHMED

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Wishing your bones and your

    Wishing your bones and your spirit will grow even stronger!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Sad news,it seems principled

    Sad news,it seems principled people are tested more these times...A poem on air, by the way.

    Air: Thou art That
    That which entered our nostrils is our first friend,
    That which will leave our nostrils will be our last friend - remember.
    That truly is God - coming along with you each second of our life!
    Thank That, Sustain That, Learn from That...Finally become That "Thou art That"
    That is life-giving oxygen!
    (Bharath)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • How important your message

    How important your message is. I hope you recover soon. Its a worlwide phenomena. In Bogota 68% of fatal road accidents are pedestrians. We are leading a campaign applying tactical urbanism methods to call attention on this tragedy, so that our cities dignify and protect those who walk. You have an ally here in Colombia.

    http://miblogota.com/2013/05/02/asi-sucedio-cebras-por-la-vida/

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • How are you Ma'm?..How is

    How are you Ma'm?..How is your health..Let god give you more strength & Long life..thank you for Infusing some commonsense about environment to the Idiots who destroy the very roots of their Nature..Get well soon.please have some security guards for you..Kumar

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunita, It was sad to

    Hi Sunita,

    It was sad to hear about your accident. I wish you a speedy recovery.

    Present Indian system, which has been taken from Britishers' abhors cycling- be it roads or be it rules. Even in defense establishments cyclist have to dismount while crossing certain gates while those on motorized vehicles cross them without any restrictions. Even if we create space for cyclists along the roads the next challenge will be to abstain motorized vehicles from encroaching it. A live example can be seen along the present BRT corridor in Delhi.

    Change is difficult but not impossible and that should keep us moving.

    With you in your endeavors to promote clean environment-

    Vikram from BAIF

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I too wish you a speedy

    I too wish you a speedy recovery and admire your vision and dedication.

    I suggest we need to restrict the convenience of the personal car by eliminating all on-street parking. One side of the street's parking lane could be rededicated to bicycle lanes. The other side of the street's parking lane is for public/shared transport drop-off/pick-up and service vehicles.

    Shared taxis replace the function of the personal car and allow easy last mile connectivity. Most importantly, they don't need parking. If these shared taxis are clean vehicles then we can begin to reduce the damage done by our past practices.

    Ann

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • This article by the victim is

    This article by the victim is very good eye opening for all the pedestrians and cyclist. The planners, now a days, designing the foot over bridge/over bridge without providing the sidewalk space for pedestrians. For very good example, the bridge near the main Bus stand - Periyar Bus stand - in Madurai city, Tamilnadu. Now a days bridges are designed only for the heavy and light weight motors only and not designed for cyclist as well as minimum space for walkers. At least the Ministry of Road Transport both Central and State may wake up now and allow the pedestrians and cyclist enjoy their commutation without fear of road accidents. Once again I forward my sincere wishes/prayers for the speedy recovery of this article writer for her enjoyment of cycling in New Delhi roads.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita ji Let me take

    Dear Sunita ji
    Let me take this opportunity to wish you speedy recovery.
    I enjoy reading your editorials and agree with you that our cities should be re-engineered to balance social, economic, and environmental needs.A livable city must invest in health and safety and provide integrated infrastructure with dedicated areas for the pedestrians,cyclists, buses and cars.It should also put the needs of its citizens at the forefront of all its planning activities.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I wish you to get well

    I wish you to get well soon.

    Unless the government takes it serious, the invisibles are to suffer.

    Best wishes

    M. Rajendran

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita, As so many of

    Dear Sunita, As so many of your friends, colleagues and admirers all over the world I was shocked to hear about your accident. These accidents where cyclists and pedestrians are hit by cars are like climate change: the people who contribute least to the problem are the main victims. Whether in India or in Paraguay, we face the total failure of our local and national authorities to ensure sound transport and urban planning is an inherent part of their development strategy. The result, as you so eloquently describe, is urban madness: thousands of deaths per day all over the planet due to accidents and air pollution, and totally congested cities in which ordinary people waste up to 3 hours per day commuting. Cycling could be a perfect transport solution for the urban poor, but in a city like Asuncion most people do not even try it as they consider it too dangerous.
    I very much wish for your speedy recovery, and that our cities will recover, somewhere this century, from the madness of car-dominated societies.
    Thanks for your wise words and please keep up the fight!
    Simone

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunitaji,

    Dear Sunitaji,
    Sorry to hear about that hit and run case which made you bedridden.Cyclists and pedestrians are the least counted items by the so called town planners and policy makers. we build 4 lane and 6 lane roads with scant regards to poor pedestrians and cyclists. It is the consortium of auto manufacturers who call the shots while preparing development masterplans in towns and cities all over the country.This cannot be called as "western" influence, because most of the places in the west "have vehicle free zones", whereas what we have here is "pedestrian and cycle free zones". God knows when we are going to realise the damage we have done and try to revert it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I feel bad for your accident

    I feel bad for your accident but I really like your confidence to fight the problems of life. Actually this problem face to all cities and country in the world because the rush of people. You did great job i also want to help you.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply