A pedestrian-first approach

A pedestrian-first approach

A pedestrian-first approach

Road infrastructure projects heavily skewed in favour of motorists have pushed the pedestrian to the periphery. Projects that reclaim the footpaths might help walkers, the most vulnerable section. But striking the right balance could be tricky

Seventy-year old Raghuram Rao was in a hurry to get home by dusk. Danger loomed at every step as he crossed that busy road, vehicles whizzing past at great speeds. But just when he thought he had won that edgy battle, he stepped on that monstrosity called a footpath!

Its tiles in tatters, its space encroached by vendors and transformers, the narrow strip was Rao’s next battleground. Would he eventually reach home safe? That would now be decided by three motorcyclists, riding towards him in wanton haste. They were just round the corner, right on the same footpath!

Rao and a million struggling Bengalureans are proof that our footpaths couldn’t be more pedestrian, in their design, safety and yes, maintenance. But could we expect anything more from a city that has its streets skewed heavily in favour of motorists, and spares no thought for the safety of its most vulnerable section on the road, the walkers?  

Half-hearted attempts to bring cosmetic changes to the city’s footpaths have failed miserably. The rising pedestrians’ accident graph is proof enough. Forced to walk on busy roads for want of safe footpaths, pedestrians young and old are dying, as fancy vehicles invade every inch of the road. 

TenderSURE roads

So, are the TenderSURE roads, with their pedestrian-first design the solution? Seven such roads will emerge soon, right within the city’s Central Business District, pampering the pedestrian with pavements wide enough to accommodate not only them but cyclists and landscaped garden paths. 

Yet, not everyone is impressed. The walkers definitely are. But not the motorists, hampered by a reduced width of motorable lanes, and shopkeepers, who fear a loss in business for want of enough parking spaces. Amplifying this is Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s recent assertion that future TenderSURE roads should have reduced footpath widths.

But the Jana Urban Space Foundation (JUSF) that designed the first phase of TenderSURE roads contends that the project is not against motorists, and is only seeking a balanced approach. Here’s the JUSF explanation, as articulated by Swati Ramanathan: The objective of TenderSURE guidelines and the current project underway, is two-fold: first, to significantly enhance the user experience of roads for all, and second, to end the vicious cycle of cutting roads, fixing poorly, cutting again.

These roads, she reasons, are not designed against motor-users but for a balance towards all users, including pedestrians and cyclists. “Besides, when people walk, we are actually reducing vehicles on the road, and therefore the traffic. The footpaths are also compacted to be stable, as well as continuous without puncturing the footpath at driveways.”

Parking concerns

Jayanand B, who has been running a juice shop on St Mark’s Road for 15 years, has no issues with the project’s aesthetics and pedestrian-friendly approach. “It is good for walkers. But parking is an issue. Traffic gets blocked even when cars are being taken out of the small parking lot provided here.” 

For Padmavathy M K, a pharmacist on the same road, the upgrade has been only in looks and not in convenience. “Business is down by half due to lack of adequate parking. Customers cannot park their cars even for five minutes before a traffic vehicle reaches the spot. Once the schools in the vicinity reopens, the problem will only get worse,” she complains.  

Civic evangelist, V Ravichandar, who was part of the City Connect Foundation that envisioned the project initially, reasons that parking cannot be a birthright that the Bengaluru needs to focus on. This, particularly when over 1,500 private, personal vehicles are being bought daily. The city’s future, he reminds, depends on embracing public transportation and alternate modes such as walking and cycling on a large scale. 

He, however, agrees that the lanes under TenderSURE have shrunk by 4-7 feet depending on road widths. But, he points out, the lanes are uniform across the road stretch. “If we accept X + Y = Z as a finite equation, and if roads are to be designed around the pedestrians and cyclists, something has to give and in this case it is the vehicle lane width,” he says.

Need for uniform lanes 

In most city roads today, Ravichandar notes, every spare bit of road is asphalted and given away to vehicles. “But this is grossly inefficient apart from being wrong – there is enough scientific data to show that vehicles that go out of lane to return back to it end up delaying everyone down the lane chain. Vehicles will move more smoothly and faster with uniform lanes. Given the challenges in land acquisition, TenderSURE checks out the minimum right of way within a road stretch and plans for the uniform motor lanes based on that.” 

But high traffic congestion and unbridled addition of new vehicles have already cramped the motorable width of most roads in the Central Business District. Can TenderSURE roads with wide footpaths find acceptance among motorists, particularly when peak hour traffic jams are the norm?

Responding to this, Swati talks about the narrowest width being the road’s effective width. She explains, “These roads were originally smaller to begin with, and expanded over the years in an attempt to manage the traffic. That’s why we find trees oddly straddling the roads, half widened roads that abruptly stop. We must recognize Bernoulli’s principle at play here - any road stretch is only as good as its narrowest width.” 

Since no trees were cut to upgrade St Mark’s Road, for instance, the project had to stick to the narrowed width to ensure uniformity. “If we let loose a hundred cars in a wide part of the road, we will have a bottleneck and congestion where the road narrows to allow only 25 cars to go through, with no net gain in speed. What we should be aiming for, is continuous, smooth flow of traffic. This is what Tender SURE roads have been designed to do, with the remaining usable space designated to pedestrians, cyclists, and parking.” 

Where does the traffic police stand in this debate? Additional Commissioner of Police, Traffic, M A Saleem, who recently returned as the city’s traffic topbrass, declines to comment specifically on the project. “I have to study the project design. In any case, our job is to do the necessary traffic diversions during the construction phase and ensure smooth flow of vehicles,” says he. 

But Saleem agrees that the pedestrians have been a “totally neglected” community in Bengaluru. The city’s harried walkers might just find a ray of hope in that assertion. 

 

 

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