Pedestrian accessibility needs to come out of the ‘gaps between cars’

Lack of infrastructure, faulty design and laws have pushed the pedestrian off the sidewalks and onto the road

By Sugeet Grover
Published: Thursday 02 May 2019
Pedestrians and vehicles on a road in Delhi. Photo: Getty Images
Pedestrians and vehicles on a road in Delhi. Photo: Getty Images Pedestrians and vehicles on a road in Delhi. Photo: Getty Images

Election season is upon us and all parties have their bag of goodies ready with them. Apart from age-old issues such as corruption and poverty, electrification and water supply surface among the promises that political parties make.

There is however, another issue that faces us all, a slight inconvenience to some and a life-disrupting one for some. It is the issue of accessibility in our cities and towns. Yet, there are no speeches made by political parties about it, not many citizen groups talk about it, and the average citizen is so used to being treated as an ‘inconvenience’ to the other well-established rule of the cars, that one honks from behind and the pedestrian can be seen ducking for cover in between voids left by the cars.

It is not very dissimilar to the times when citizens were forced to hide away from the processions of kings, except now the people driving the procession of cars are ordinary citizens like you and me, made kings of the road not because of the extra constitutional powers invested in them, but because of lack of empathy by the governments to this cause.

The problems are multi-fold. There is, of course, the basic issue of pedestrian infrastructure. In most of India, a sidewalk is considered as a luxury in itself, a continuous sidewalk without interruptions are practically unheard of apart from a very few elite localities. If a sidewalk exists, it is usually in a state of disrepair — even if that is sometime sorted out — the sidewalk is often interrupted by poles, banners, electric boxes and encroachment, among other things.

What this leads to is the pedestrian being pushed off the footpath, onto the road. Indian streets have multiple stakeholders. The street could be designed by the urban local body or Public Works Department and then dug up for any of the reasons such as laying of gas pipelines, telephone lines, electric infrastructure and water pipes, with multiple agencies involved.

Additionally, there might be agencies involved in placing of boards and signages, traffic lights and bus stops and no agency involved in the coordination between them all amidst varying interests.

Is the local government sensitised towards it? In Delhi, one can observe a mohalla clinic that is built over existing footpaths, hindering pedestrian movement. Clearly indicating the attitude with which footpaths have been treated in the city as unutilised spaces waiting to be built upon.

Can a lack of funds be a problem? Hardly so. Building flyovers and road widening are much more expensive than repairing and building sidewalks. Moreover, as in the case of Delhi, road widening and flyover construction has added more and more cars onto the roads.

This has happened because of the phenomenon of ‘induced demand’ where the increase in roadway capacity leads to new drivers coming in to fill this newly-available space. This points towards misplaced priorities in our agencies which are bent towards easing the path of the cars than the pedestrians.

Ironically enough, part of the reason we have a problem of the car in the first place is because of a lack of infrastructure or non-motorised transport which forced people to bring out motorised versions of transport. This vicious circle will continue until the priorities of agencies shift towards pedestrian-first approach.

Lack of infrastructure is but one basic starting point to encourage pedestrian accessibility in the country. There are two more issues that need to be understood. The second one is about the issues with the physical design of the pedestrian infrastructure that exists. The third issue that will be needed to understood is how the bye laws of cities such as Delhi have hampered the experience of a pedestrian. 

This blog is the first of a three-part series. 

Sugeet Grover is a senior research associate in the Sustainable Buildings and Habitat Programme at the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

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