Pedestrian questions

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

imageHave you ever noticed the footpath? Does it even exist? And if it does what is its height from the road? What should be the ideal height that allows for pedestrians to walk without fear of being run over or breaking a leg clambering onto it, while not allowing cars to park and take over this public space?

Why am I asking these rather pedestrian questions? Because, quite frankly, these are the questions we need to answer. The only way our cities can crawl out of the quagmire of vehicles and pollution is to promote public transport systems at a scale and pace nobody has done or seen. I say this not out of arrogance; I am stating the imperative. The fact is our cities, with bumper-to-bumper traffic and dangerous levels of air toxins, have (believe it or not) only just begun to motorise. People do not move in cars in our cities, even if choked roads give that impression. In Delhi, statistics tell you that roughly 20 per cent of the city owns private cars. But only some 15 per cent drive to work, school or shop. These car users take up 90 per cent or more of the road space, and over 26 per cent of the city’s urban land is already under metal.

The situation is the same across the country. Therefore, the only option for our cities is to reinvent mobility so that we do not have to drive—we can ride a bus or a train. The aim should be to use road space efficiently; move people, not vehicles. This is not possible unless we plan for what is called in transport lingo “last mile connectivity”. Simply put, we will not or cannot take a metro train or ride a bus if we cannot get to the station or to our destination with ease. Delhi, for instance, has over 150 km of world-class metro facilities. But how does the commuter get to the station? Buses are not easily available or convenient and footpaths do not exist. I cannot walk or cross the street. I cannot think that public transport will change the face of my city.

That is why we need to think of where we walk.

And the cruel fact is that we don’t. Let me reiterate that this is not idle talk. A number of people in our cities walk but they are invisible to planners and a nuisance to car drivers. According to government’s own estimates, roughly 30 per cent of city dwellers across the country commute daily by walking. In Delhi, a comprehensive 2010 study sponsored by the government shows 34 per cent of the daily “person trips” are “walk” only. In addition, 27 per cent walk to take a bus and almost all metro users walk before they can ride.

We are blind to those who walk. That is why pavement is the first casualty of street widening to accommodate cars. That is why signal-free roads are the buzz-road even if it means that there is no light to stop vehicles so that people can cross the road. That is why we make bus stops and then put railing on road dividers; people cannot cross safely. Just stop. Just check how the pedestrian crossing is situated on the road. You will see what I mean.

This is not the only problem. It seems we do not even know the right way to build pedestrian-friendly streets. The international practice is to build footpaths at a short height from the road—most cities mandate 150 mm—which is easy to use. The width is 2 metres at the minimum, allowing two people to walk easily.

Our cities do not have specific codes for designing pedestrian-friendly roads. Instead, road engineers use the Indian Road Congress (IRC) codes for construction. But this association is known for its work in highway design, so till its last revision in 2012 it did not specify the height of the footpath. Road engineers had a field day doing whatever it took to make walking unenjoyable. In Delhi, drains have been covered along the roads to double up as sidewalks. The height is 400-500 mm, so one has to jump or climb.

The 2012 IRC code specifies a minimum width of 1.8 m and a height of 150-250 mm. But now new challenges emerge. As cities lower the height, cars climb over the pedestrian walkway. The footpath becomes free parking. In this way, the vocal minority of car users takes the space reserved for the commuter on two legs. Equity in road space is easy to talk about but hard to enforce.

This is now the design dilemma: what should be the height of the footpath? Should we follow international design standards? Or should Indian planners acquiesce to Indian habits and build practically. The problem is compounded by the fact that the penalty for illegal parking is so little that it does not matter. Cities cannot revise parking fines because these are mandated under the Central Indian Motor Vehicles Act. The Bill to increase the deterrence for wrongful or unauthorised parking has been with Parliament for the past four years.

So what do we do? The answer is to build convenient sidewalks, with barriers to cars. This will require new designs for congested cities, where road space is limited and contested. But how? When? Pedestrian questions are not pedestrian after all. Think and look so that we can walk, not drive.

Global status report on road safety 2013

Delhi walkability audit report

Improving footpaths in Indian cities through walkability surveys and tighter policies

Draft parameters for urban transport under National Sustainable Habitat Mission (NMSH)

Walkability forum: better air quality and livable cities

Walkability in Indian cities

Walkability and pedestrian facilities in Asian cities: state and issues

The pedestrian and the road

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  • You have focused on a crucial

    You have focused on a crucial issue. Faulty planning is one part of the problem. Footpaths are not planned or planned in a way that they are not very useful. But the problem does not end there.
    Another issue is encroachment. Wherever footpaths exist, whether correctly or wrongly planned, they are always encroached. If the footpaths are adjacent to some market or shops, the shopkeepers extend their shops on the footpaths. Otherwise hawkers selling different types of merchandise encroach the footpaths. But the tragedy is that they do it on the instance of the municipal authorities and the local police. Persons from the two agencies regularly collect money from them depending on the dimensions of encroachments.
    In residential areas the footpaths are encroached by the house owners. They park their vehicles on the footpaths.
    Finally, the pedestrians suffer and they have to walk on the roads. As a result innumerable accidents take place.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I spend part of the year in

    I spend part of the year in Switzerland and enjoy walking through the meadows, valleys, drinking water from natural springs along the way - A country where pedestrians are given all the value they deserve. Cars pass through the adjoining roads at the stipulated speeds (not a bit more)but we pedestrians are well protected by the pathway provided. All cars stop when we want to cross the road at yellow markings - long queues of cars are a common sight at these times. We wave and thank them while crossing.
    In Kerala 2000 pedestrians died on a single year on roads. The No of disabled persons are much more. Similar is the situation in other Indian cities. Hapless pedestrians of India!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunita, Thanks a million

    Hi Sunita,
    Thanks a million touching on this enormously important topic which indeed impacts millions every day all over India. What seems simple has become a very complicated problem. Last mile Commute is mostly left to the commuters, no matter how they reach the nearest metro station or bus stand. Our governments and municipalities are clearly sleeping. The real question is how can we end this mess. You said right, we could start by punishing those who are using this walking space for any other use than walking on it. May be cars , bikes or anyone else hindering the free movement.
    May in a few decades we could think and plan about Handicap friendly footpaths. The government is busy building roads, metros, airports to lure tourists. Well the real journey begins after you leave the airport or your hotel, which I am sure is not a easy one!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Absolutely correct! It is not

    Absolutely correct!
    It is not only the cars parked over footpaths; the sign board, bill boards, telephone and electricity junction boxes, hawkers and other vendors occupy the footpath as if they have a right to do so.
    Long flyovers, sometimes several kilometres long, are constructed to provide signal free passage to cars. I think that since footpaths at ground level are never spared, it shall be very appropriate that long flyovers are provided for the pedestrians, with cross over bridges to go to the other side of the road and escalators to get up and get down at suitable points. Once this is done,walking shall be greatly facilitated and some relief will be experienced from the ill-effects of motorised traffic.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you for raising this

    Thank you for raising this issue.Care for pedestrians?You must be kidding!
    I live in a large town Tumkur, a district HQ, where walking along roads was a pleasure a few decades ago. But as the towns vehicular traffic grew, my walking space has shrunk. Also the unscientific way of construction of roads has left most foot paths almost a feet higher than the road and I have to descend and ascend at every intersection of the road. The available floor space is some times sloping, and more than often occupied by the bill boards of shop keepers or used as parking lot.AS more and more vehicles are put to use the pedestrian becomes a victim and a non existent entity!

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

    Dear Sunitaji: Many thanks for the article on the plight of pedestrians. Here in Pune, the footpaths are occupied by hawkers and pav-bhaji stalls with blessings from the local Corporators. The customers use the tables & chairs mounted right on the footpaths and eat comfortably. The elected corporators have become the biggest enemies for a common man in Pune.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • There is no question of your

    There is no question of your concern or my concerns, it is our concern; right to walk on the footpath is certainly there. Only the problem is there is no Footpath existing in many place! Thank you Sunita for your story,A it is an imperative one for every Indian city!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I more than agree with this

    I more than agree with this editorial. I wish to add that in Kolkata the scarce footpaths are constantly being occupied by all kinds of structures - roadside tea and food stalls, shops, temples big and small. The government does not seem to be doing anything about this. And new developments seem to have discarded the notion of footpaths.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent article. The way

    Excellent article. The way out of our traffic mess is prioritised public transport *and* safe and navigable pedestrian infrastructure.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The state of our roads and

    The state of our roads and footpaths really saddens me whenever I step outside the house. When metros and flyovers are affordable, why can't we have decent roads and footpaths?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • You have raised very

    You have raised very pertinent issues and I am so glad someone is noticing this problem. Walking is one of the easiest means to travel and also the cheapest form of exercise. It seems like common sense to promote walking when our cities are reeling under a whole host of lifestyle diseases. But our roads are simply not safe enough for it. I don't have any solution but I do know that it is due to unauthorised seating areas set up by hotels (particularly in monsoons in Mumbai), illegal hawkers and parking as you rightly put it. Fines are negligible too and in any case one can 'bargain'and get away with a lesser amount, which is ridiculous. Skywalks might be the only safe, though highly expensive option! On the other hand a clean-up of the RTO and drivers licensing system which is such a mockery needs to be tackled as well. Unfortuntaley we always wait for mishaps to happen before we wake up and hold candle light vigils and what-nots!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Some Pedestrian Thoughts on

    Some Pedestrian Thoughts on Chennai: I'm a walker on Chennai roads. Once I was walking back home on Nungambakkam High Road and Haddows Road, which are among the few roads in Chennai having pedestrian walks. One of the bus shelters had a rod across the pavement at just above ankle length, giving the poor but briskly walking pedestrian, blinded by a thousand head lamps, an opportunity to trip over it and fall flat on his face with a few complimentary bruises on the forehead, elbows, palms, knees and lower leg. We must thank the brilliant town planner for such innovative tripping rods across pavements at helpful calf heights to provide free entertainment to the otherwise harassed pedestrians. A recent form of harassment was the birthday cutouts of a politician son blocking the pavement every 10 metres or so on the above two roads, which I found out one evening when I was walking back from T Nagar. I've never come across any service this aspiring politician and son of a senior Union Minister has done for the people. He wants to make it up by giant billboards all over the city from which his reluctant smiles greet the poor pedestrian struggling through the ropes and poles that hold up the repulsive posters. What are vices for the ordinary citizen, like immodesty, self-glorification, manipulative politics and insensitivity to othersÔÇÖ inconvenience, are virtues for wannabe leaders.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you all for your

    Thank you all for your comments and for sharing your experiences. I do think that the more we can get focus on this issue -- get people to see the footpath -- we will get better policies. But we need to fix the issue of parking and as many readers have reminded me, also of the encroachment of footpaths for other purposes. This makes me realise that we need to push for a street vendor policy -- allocation of space -- along with a car parking policy.
    I will look forward to more responses.

    Posted by: Sunita Narain | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Sunitaji, It is extremely

    It is extremely thoughtful of you to pose the issue of sidewalks. The ones that exist in Delhi are a mere excuse( barring those inLutyens Delhi) and as pointed out, often usurped by cars who don't know where to. What is more troubling is the overnight springing up of cigarette vendors whose kiosks occupy entire widths pushing pedestrians into hazardous situations on severely congested roads filled with cars driven by unrelenting drivers. Some have suggested video graphing the inherently unsafe walk trip, whether to ride, shop, or go to the neighbourhood park, especially children, the infirm and the elderly.
    Do take it up as you've done for other contentious matters. Thanks

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • What might work in favour of

    What might work in favour of children, pedestrians, hawkers, shoe shine boys, street vendors and even beggars is to quickly 'pedestrianise' markets and shopping areas where feasible and perhaps link central assistance to urban bodies or TCP departments to performance on this count. The nuisance is cars and once these are removed from specified areas, other options like improving such spaces and making them greener and cleaner would have a chance. For example, the inner circus of Connought Place in Delhi can be pedestrianised without the government having to fall. Look at the user friendliness of Sector 17 in Chandigarh after it has been pedestrianised. Many clogged footpaths would then gradually become free for walking.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunitaji, Many thanks for

    Hi Sunitaji,

    Many thanks for the article on the plight of pedestrians.

    In Chennai also we rarely find footpath in good shape.
    In the Sardar Patel Road where School of Architecture and Planning (SAP) is located (Opp to Cancer Institute, Adyar) ) Foot path is missing in the junction (redlight) and many patients of Cancer institute and Anna University Students use this road/path very much. A pregnant women with children walking along the road without footpath found it very difficult as there are more number of buses plying towards Adyar and Kotturpuram. Therefore there must be good policy for protecting the rights of Pedestrians.

    Every Plan is there in the drawing, but in practice/implementation main features missing.It reminds the saying "Operation successful but Patient died".

    Sometime a question arise do we really put our mind in solving the problem. It always remains as a question only.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Traditionally, kerbs and

    Traditionally, kerbs and footpaths were also set at a height to keep excess rainwater in the roadway and protect properties. This has been forgotten in so-called developed cities. We are undertaking a UK Project for CIRIA on 'designing for exceedance' that in part aims to resurrect this thinking.
    I know from experience in Mumbai, that the roads take precedence over the drainage and that many drains have been built over by roads. This is fine until monsoon season. Worldwide, with a few notable exceptions, roads are gods in cities and towns that are untouchable.. this has to be challenged for a safe and secure society.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sir, You are absolutely

    Dear Sir,

    You are absolutely correct that footpaths are either not planned well or they are not of any use as they are mostly encroached either by hawkers or by cars.

    But according to the IRC guidelines, there has to be space provided for hawkers as they are the essential character of such spaces which makes people want to use these spaces. As that's always negligible in the design so the hawkers have to encroach them as they have no designated space.

    Secondly the parking of cars on the footpaths can be avoided by segregating the footpaths from the main carriageway by putting railings as that's already been practiced in Sri Lanka.

    The biggest issue is lack of enforcement in India when it comes to public spaces, so the authorities need to plan and design these spaces as such so that they themselves solves the purpose.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Exceelent article, biggest

    Exceelent article, biggest challenge for planners is to provide both accessibility and connectivity by public transport. Further, enforcement has to be strict in ordered to remove encroachment from footpath. However, due to extreme climatic conditions especially during summer season when temperature goes up, it would be quite difficult either to walk or ride cycle.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • One more menace in bangalore.

    One more menace in bangalore. Mobikes riding on footpaths when traffic halts at signals or when there is a jam. Deterrent penalties should be made hefty for all types of violations. Deplorable law amendment meant for traffic of fences is hanging in parliament. Some one should start campaign to have the law passed.

    Am now in Santa Clara USA and am amazed at how cars stop for pedestrians to cross. This practice could be partly due to concern for pedestrians but mostly for fear of being slapped with fines.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for the article

    Thanks for the article maam.
    It is and was genuinely a problematic issue.
    In my view, apart from all the rules and regulations the road construction people have to keep in mind while constructing these footpaths, the citizens of our country should also have civic sense. One suggestion that might solve this problem could be constructing underground parking wherever the traffic is out of control because anyhow the number of cars, two wheelers etc would increase day by day and would definitely pollute the air and streets.
    its time to think out of box and make things work out for india as it has to go a long way.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • It was a great article

    It was a great article touching the very basics. I for one would talk about Delhi. Commonwealth Games did give us a chance to revamp our infrastructure,including the pedestrian amenities, which was done to a good extent. But still I see it was done on Cosmetic levels only.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Rohit I agree. But what is

    I agree. But what is even worse is that the footpaths built for Commonwealth Games -- which incidentally are very well done in many places -- are now encroached upon by cars; or neglected. The problem is that we do not have a citywide network of footpaths. Only on the few streets, designed as street-scaping work, and so we do not really view these as necessary. Clearly, this is not good enough. We need footpaths across the city; which are built so that people can walk with comfort and we cannot allow either cars, vendors or shops to take these over. This is the challenge.

    Posted by: Sunita Narain | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Doctors and hospitals and

    Doctors and hospitals and pharma companies are minting money due to almost totally missing walkable walkways in almost all the towns and cities all across India. What a national environmental shame it is. Road planning in India is most politicized, criminalized and nonprofessionalised anywhere in the world. God save public health in India.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Where there is enough space

    Where there is enough space to have a 5' wide footpath as well as 5' wide planting/landscsape strip, one could either have large plants installed between the footpath and carriage way ( done is some places in Delhi). The condition would only work if a) adjacent properties could take the responsibility of upkeep of the landscape (via incentives) or the PWD can plant young trees (6-10' feet) when it constructs the footpath. Ultimately adjacent property owners should be involved from the beginning of the design process so that they know why and how the process will improve their local environment. They can also be enforcement's look out where a hotline could help them report illegal parking and get the cars towed.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita, It is a pleasure

    Dear Sunita,
    It is a pleasure to always read / hear on your articles.

    We have a lot of small towns / townships coming up. Can we atleast build in a mechanism whereby it is mandatory to have walking tracks / cycle tracks for citizens. It may sound ambitious to expect it in the metro cities; smaller cities like Pune can atleast provide such opportunities. Some 10 years ago, children cycled to school here, but now it is impossible. There is a constant fear of pedestrians and cyclists getting knocked down. Let's plan our cities better, let our cities display the human touch.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narain, Your

    Dear Ms. Sunita Narain,

    Your article should be an eye opener for everybody. Just to add, please see the 10 Kms long beutiful footpath provided in hilly terrain of Gangtok, Sikkim fully supported by railings on edge meeting the road carriageway for safe movement of pedestrains.

    Carry on with such views. I support you.

    Shishir Bansal
    Project Manager
    PWD, Govt. of Delhi

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narain, This

    Dear Ms. Sunita Narain,
    This obviously is a problem that affects not only most metro cities but also small cities and towns. Like most other problems it an issue of the urban India. We all espouse the cause of urbanization and development but alas, we continue to live in the cities like we would live in the villages. Any development brings with it new rules of living. Right from living in a cottage, to that in a multistoried highrise, to talking on a mobile phone, each comes with its dos and donÔÇÖts. Problem is we donÔÇÖt follow the rules, actually most donÔÇÖt even know what those are or should be. Little do we realize that rules are (or should be) made and followed in order to show consideration towards others so as to avoid inconveniencing them. But as is obvious, it is not of much concern to most of the citizenry where, breaking the rules is the norm. The road - pedestrian - walkway issue is just one of the examples of the 'do as I please' behavior that we constantly display. We wish to drive as we would drive in the villages where there are no separate areas designated for the pedestrians and vehicles due to small human and vehicular population. So whatÔÇÖs the problem in the cities.
    1. huge human pedestrian traffic
    2. huge vehicular traffic
    3. lack of footpaths
    4. presence of footpaths but narrow ones
    5. presence of footpaths but encroached upon
    6. inability to use foothpaths
    7. being forced to walk on the road / forced to use a vehicle public or private for even short distances
    8. crowded public vehicles/increased private vehicular traffic
    ThatÔÇÖs our problem in a nut shell. And for all of the above we rightly blame the government and the enforcers of the law. But are they the only ones to blame ? What about the encroacher, the shopkeeper who has extended the boundaries of his shop, the hawker blocking the passage, and above all the pedestrian who is their customer. We are all in this together and we are all to blame. What is required most, is the sense to be driven into the head of the common man who by his shortsightedness keeps compounding his own problem. Public service messages in the media and awareness of ones social responsibility is not enough. What may move the commonman is to show him how increased social sense and responsibility will ultimately benefit his own quality of life and his selfish desires.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunita, This is a very

    Hi Sunita,

    This is a very crucial and much ignored aspect in Indian cities. But people like us (Transparent Chennai) are working on walkability projects that encourage community participation, empower citizens to advocate for pedestrian infrastructure and look at government accountability in the process. I would love to share more about our project if you are interested.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Very thoughtful article.

    Very thoughtful article. Authorities should act to provide footpaths for pedestrians. After all Pedestrians are also voters!
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • In Denmark One Company(Though

    In Denmark One Company(Though for Advertisement) made available some specially designed bicycles. There will be some slots where these bicycles can be put. One has to put a 20 Kroner Coin to release the bike and can use it and put back at the designated slots and get back the 20 Kroners. This is to ensure that people leave the bicycle on the road. I have seen Former Prime Minister of Denmark riding bicycle to reach Parliament! Can it happen in India. But Kolkata wants to ban entry of cyclists on many roads. The other alternative is to create Bicycle lanes.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply