Social Distancing: A Walkability boost needed

Social Distancing: A Walkability boost needed

Post-lockdown mobility mandates strict social-distancing, a near-impossibility in the city’s limited public transport system. Private, personal transport inevitably triggers hyper-congestion. That leaves out cycling and walking, at least the last-mile. But when our footpaths remain so pedestrian, is walking even a choice?    

Most vehicles banished by the total lockdown, the deserted city roads had offered a golden opportunity to chalk out a fresh, pedestrian-inclusive mobility strategy. Now with the crowds and congestion back, is it goodbye yet again to shared, sustainable mobility?

CMP proposals 

Drafted last year, the Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) for the Bengaluru Metropolitan Area does offer a way forward for pedestrianisation despite the Plan’s flaws on other fronts. Proposed under the head ‘Non-Motorised Transport Plan’ are pedestrian streets, elevated walkways and universally accessible footpaths. 

Driven by a motorist-focused system and unregulated encroachments, footpaths had shrunk from both sides along roads across the city. A flawed approach that prioritised motorists over walkers had seen dubious skywalks emerge at multiple locations, often to aid only enhanced billboard visibility.  

Doubly endangered 

Further easing of the lockdown is bound to see the traffic jams back and the motorcyclists invade the pedestrian space. Lives of the elderly, children and the physically challenged, struggling to negotiate the uneven, often broken footpaths, would be doubly endangered. 

So, will the draft CMP let them walk freely someday in the near future? Here’s what the Plan proposes: “Existing road networks should be earmarked and improved for non-motorized transport comprising of walking and bicycling, which are the lowest-impact transport modes with no negative externalities.”

The CMP proposes investments for a robust pedestrian infrastructure upgrade, universally accessible, continuous and well-maintained footpaths; minimum pavement width, safety bollards and elevated walkways. It also seeks a curb on footpath encroachments across the entire road network with focus on high-density areas.

Safe crossings at grade

Safe crossings at regular intervals, preferably at grade are another key proposal. This implies the current craze for signal-free corridors that force pedestrians to take the elevated route, is not the way to go. “Prioritise walking and bicycling infrastructure in the catchment areas of transit stations, to promote non-motorised transport as the default mode for first and last mile connectivity,” the CMP notes. 

Poor junction design makes it extremely tough to cross several city roads with hi-speed traffic, points out Madhav Pai, director, World Research Institute (WRI) India Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities. “Getting across a 60-metre road in 10 seconds is very difficult. Many cover only half the distance,” he explains.

Traffic islands are critical to ensure pedestrian safety. The lockdown time could have been used to create such temporary spaces with barriers. 

Pedestrian fatalities

Risky crossings have sparked a big spike in pedestrian deaths in the city. “In India, the pedestrian fatality share has risen 84% over the last four years, with average daily fatalities going from 34 to 62 in 2018,” informs Nikita Luke, a Project Associate for Health and Road Safety at the WRI Centre. 

In response to the new social-distancing demands imposed by Covid-19, cities worldwide have opened up more street space for pedestrians. This, as Nikita put it, has become a permanent vision for some cities. However, poor street design and faulty integration with completed roads could compromise pedestrian safety.

Accessible sidewalks 

In her view, there are six ways to create more pedestrian-friendly streets that can make a city safer, cleaner and more productive. The first is to provide accessible and continuous sidewalks with recommended width of at least 5-6 feet for low-volume areas and 8ft for high-volume areas. “Social-distancing may require even more space in high volume areas.” 

To boost accessibility, she says, sidewalks should also incorporate curb ramps, use anti-skid paving material to reduce risk of slips and falls during poor weather conditions. The surface should be tactile to assist pedestrians who are visually impaired. 

Walking plazas 

Converting underused / inactive spaces into pedestrian plazas is another way. “Unstructured, under-occupied or misused dead zones can be revamped with the help of paint, planter boxes, artwork and street furniture, along with high-resistance and low-maintenance lighting and landscaping.” 

Creation of safe zones for children and young adults is also critical. Areas around playgrounds, parks, schools and community centers, Nikita notes, require special attention. 

Pedestrian streets 

Pedestrian streets, as the CMP also emphasises, could end up improving the overall safety of walkers, boost local air quality, land value, store sales and overall health besides addressing noise pollution. The Mobility Plan has identified 10 city streets / road stretches for total pedestrianisation. 

Church Street is an obvious candidate. The list also includes Gandhi Bazar Main Road between K R Road and D V G Road; 10th Main Road adjacent to Jayanagar Shopping Complex; Russel Market Road; Commercial Street; Brigade Road from M G Road to Residency Road; Between 7th Cross and 10th Cross, Malleshwaram; and 8th Cross between Margosa Road and 18th Sampige Road. 

An infrastructure boost is crucial to improve the city’s poor walkability score. But, as Additional Director General of Police, Administration, M A Saleem puts it, people should walk at least a kilometre to push the change. “Good footpaths are indeed essential, and the TenderSURE roads are a model to be emulated in other parts of the city,” says Saleem, who has had a vast experience in the city’s traffic management and road safety systems.  

Coherent network 

To give walkability and cycling a boost, the focus should be “on infrastructure that is safe, connected, convenient and comfortable, coupled with regulation and enforcement,” as Nikita reiterates. “This would include safe and wide sidewalks, well-designed intersections, a coherent network of protected cycle lanes, low-speed zones and pedestrianising streets by closing them to traffic.”  

Most interventions are already underway globally. Temporary changes are morphing into permanent, structural shifts. The models are ready. It is now time Bengaluru follows suit, or create a walkability model of its own, with a distinct character designed to boost the quality of every Bengalurean’s life. 

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