Those dangerous crossings

Mounting deaths of walkers on City's notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly roads raise serious questions about how civic agencies continue with their mis

Those dangerous crossings

Signal-free corridors, monster flyovers, high-speed tollways, freeways... The flood of big ticket projects dreamt up by ideas-starved BBMP and Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) has had just one class in mind: Motorised transport.

Mauled by reckless drivers, stuck deep in chaotic roads and stumped by poorly maintained footpaths, the pedestrians find their safety deliberately, systematically compromised!   

The recent accident near Hebbal flyover was just the most dramatic of a series of eminently avoidable incidents that have in recent years killed pedestrians by the hundreds.

Thanks to misplaced priorities of civic agencies that inevitably favoured vehicle-users, usable, pedestrian-friendly skywalks and underpasses have disappeared from the city roads. Pushed to a corner, the walkers, young and old, have been left with no choice but to turn dangerous jaywalkers.

No easy money 

So, where lies the fault? Fingers are inevitably pointed at the sleazy nexus of corrupt contractors and officials, who woudn’t find easy money in building utilities for the pedestrians.  

As a well-informed expert on urban mobility discloses anonymously, making money from a project as open as a skywalk (with escalators and lifts) would be tough to hide. Shoddy work would get easily exposed. “The Palike contractors know it, and are so not keen at all. They prefer the bigger projects,” notes the expert.

Ironically, the low cost of building infrastructure for pedestrians stands against it. A skywalk may cost a couple of crores of rupees to make, unlike even a small flyover that could cost at least Rs 60 crore, points out former additional commissioner of police, traffic, Praveen Sood.

The implication is clear: Low cost, low priority pedestrian facilities aren’t attractive prospects for leakages! What really attract them are the multi-crore rupee projects.

A senior civic consultant, who has worked with BBMP, discloses that the uniform leakage in civic projects is sixty per cent. Says he, on condition of anonymity: “If Rs 500 crore is spent on a project, you can be rest assured that only Rs 200 crore get effectively used. The rest is pocketed at different levels!” 

Total insensitivity 

If a foot over-bridge is sanctioned, the fund for a lift is often left out of the plan. “This is because that money will be part of the leakage. This reflects the total insensitivity of these agencies and the government to safety of pedestrians,” the consultant says.

Hardly surprising then, that despite rising pedestrian deaths, road projects designed by BBMP and BDA are glaringly lacking in safe road-crossing avenues. Road-widening projects invariably mean the already narrow footpaths are further pruned, making a mockery of their original purpose!   

The silent majority of footpath walkers are totally out of the policymakers’ radar. Even if pedestrians’ utilities are envisaged in a project initially, they are sacrificed later citing budgetary constraints.  Sood observes, “When there is a budget cut for a project, the first casualty is pedestrian infrastructure. The first to go are safety utilities.”

This is true in the case of many projects hit by delays and cost escalations.  Yet, the skywalk - once devised as the panacea for all pedestrian problems - has become a dirty word for many. Skywalks built on Seshadri road, Residency road, Chalukya circle, Peenya, Old airport road, KG Road and other locations are hardly used.

But when they are installed at locations and at heights inaccessible to senior citizens, the weak and children, can pedestrians be blamed? Obviously, the advertisement mafia dictates where and how the skywalks should be put up!

Skywalks with escalators and lifts, scientifically placed at locations chosen after intense traffic and mobility studies, should be the obvious choice. “A lift is preferable for older people since they tend to get disoriented on escalators,” feels V Ravichandar, a seasoned campaigner for pedestrian safety. 

Besides skywalks, pedestrian underpasses in the city are in disuse for obvious reasons: Most are dimly lit, poorly maintained and yes, suffer from location issues. That leaves the footpaths, indiscriminately misused and encroached upon for both legal and illegal projects by both private and public players. 

HC diktat on footpaths

Responding to a public interest litigation, the Karnataka High Court had ruled in January: “If any pedestrian is hurt henceforth due to defects in footpaths, the (BBMP) commissioner and chief engineers concerned will be held personally responsible”

The Chief Justice had then asked the Palike what it had done about previous court orders that had sought disciplinary action against erring officials as the commissioner himself had promised. The Palike’s response was on expected lines. It reasoned that it had given its officials some more time to set things right!

But the Court was in no mood to accept that. “Has the BBMP commissioner cared to visit places like Gandhi Bazaar where there are no footpaths? All roads (footpaths) are bad in fact and the exclusions are just a few”. The Chief Justice wanted to know what BBMP was doing about the problem. “If you can keep Cubbon Park clean, it does not mean that all of Bangalore is clean”

Earlier, in July 2014, the Court had made it clear that the pavements are exclusively for walkers and no one else. It had directed BBMP to clear all footpath encroachments in the City within the next three months. Six months were given to the Palike to modify pavements to Indian Road Congress (IRC) standards.

IRC is clear that footpaths should be 1.8 metres wide. A year after the High Court order, the average width does not exceed 80 centimetres. By extension of this Court ruling, Ravichandar feels, the death of a pedestrian due to lack of a crossing mechanism should attract similar action against the engineer/official concerned.

‘Change footpath design’

Urban architect Naresh Narasimhan feels the problem of erratic footpaths will not go away unless the Stormwater Drains (SWDs) under them are shifted. “It needs a fundamental engineering change. The drains should be under where the road meets the kerb, so that the rest of the utilities could be put under the footpath,” he explains. 

But the Palike will not be in a hurry to do that. For, the desilting of SWDs is a business that runs into hundreds of crores of rupees.

“It is obvious they won’t do it, since big money is involved in the recurring desilting contracts. You cannot have these open drains, put them underground with gratings and sand filters so that they don’t get filled up with junk,” says another architect, who has worked closely with BBMP.

On an average, one pedestrian dies every day on Bengaluru’s roads. Over half the trips made by a Bengalurean is fully or partially by foot. Yet, there seems to be no shift in priorities away from motorised commute. How many more should die for the government and civic agencies to wake up?

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