Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Pedestrians, Pune's second class citizens

Pedestrians, Pune's second class citizens

By Pankaj Sekhsaria

DNA, Pune Edition,
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

There is a new hierarchy that has slowly but surely entrenched itself in India’s urban reality. It is not really articulated in that light, but it is an experience that any resident of our cities could not have missed. Get on to the roads of your city as a pedestrian or a cyclist and you know instantly that you are a 2nd class citizen. It’s not difficult to understand - while the annual growth rate of human population across 23 of our major cities for the period 1991-2001 was a little more than three, the annual growth rate of vehicles for the same period was almost 10 and this has only accelerated in the recent years. The consequences are obvious - zooming cars and two wheelers, blaring horns, billowing smoke, narrower footpaths, fewer trees – it is increasingly a punishment to even get out onto to city roads if you don’t have a personalized mode of motor transport.
In line with the logic that growth in vehicle population and density is non-negotiable and questioning it amounts to sacrilege, the single biggest activity in our cities in recent times has been road and flyover construction and road widening. Trees, footpaths, old shops, houses – nothing matters. Conservative estimates suggest, for instance, that at least 50,000 trees, many for accommodating the increasing traffic, have been chopped down in Pune in the last five years alone. Pedestrian and cyclists occupy minimum road space and cause no pollution at all, but that is of no consequence at all. By cutting trees and reducing (even eliminating) footpaths the situation is only being made more hostile for them.
An excellent example of this is the four laning and huge expansion of road width on the highway between Nigdi and Dapodi along with the most recent construction of grade separators. It has been suggested that a vehicle can now cover this distance in a little over eight minutes. While motorists are delighted for obvious reasons, others, particularly those who walk or use cycles have been completely forgotten. There are a number of sections in this stretch where one has to take a detour of at least a couple of kilometers to just cross over to the other side. Twenty minutes of driving time saved for a motorist has directly translated to at least twice the duration of transport time for a pedestrian. Children and old people will, in fact, be put to the greatest hardships.
The recently published nation-wide study on ‘Traffic and Transportation Policies and Strategies in Urban Areas in India’ that was commissioned by the Union Ministry for Urban Development provides evidence of precisely this. Thousands of people are killed annually in our metros in road accidents and not surprisingly a substantial number of those killed are indeed pedestrians. “And for pedestrians,” the report notes, “our city roads have simply forgotten they exist. The percentage of roads with pedestrian footpaths runs to hardly 30% in most cities.”
It has to be remembered that every citizen is a pedestrian at some point in his or her use of the roads of a city. Unless priorities in urban planning, in the media and in our thinking are not refocused, this problem is only set to increase. Merely adding and widening roads is not going to help. What is needed is a more fundamental effort at improving public transport, reducing private vehicles and putting the welfare and safety of the pedestrian and cyclist at the very centre of all that we do.
More pedestrians, otherwise, will continue to die and the most frightening part is that it could be anyone of us, any point of time.

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