Chennai pedestrians: uniting the ‘walking classes’

This pavement on Kodambakkam Station Road is off limits thanks to the hoardingIf only pedestrians would vote with their feet in the various elections, they would get more space to walk. That is my belief, after watching the unconcern of our elected representatives to the plight of the most numerous and least secure category of road users.

In a country with huge health concerns such as diabetes and hypertension, especially in urban areas, one would expect that our elected worthies, whether in Parliament, in the State legislatures or at least the civic bodies would strike a blow for walkers. They never do. On the contrary, they are forever bending over backwards to serve the automotive lobby, and their friends engaged in the business of building flyovers.

To this indifferent lot (who actually deserve to be described in much stronger terms) the group of disabled people who conducted an audit of walking facilities in South Chennai recently must matter little. After all, in a city in which able-bodied individuals find walking a challenge, what prospects can a group of disabled children and their attendants look for?

With some determination, though, this group can make itself heard. The effort to unite them is being taken by some activists, and they will no doubt be heartened by the work of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS). The MIDS is conducting an audit of how friendly Chennai is to those of us who use Shank’s Pony to get around.

The report on the first such audit published by The Hindu is here.

Like most Indian cities and towns, Chennai is a pedestrian’s ultimate horror. That I believe is the result of treadmills replacing walking paths: our political leaders do not walk along roads, our bureaucrats will not walk, and our opinion makers in other walks of life, including diabetologists, cardiologists and orthopaedicians, will also not walk. If they did, we would have wide footpaths and useable ones at that. Instead, we have ever widening roads and flyovers to carry ever increasing numbers of Scorpios, Innovas, Taveras, Sumos and what not,  with a cavernous appetite for our meagre, broken and crumbling footpaths.

As I think of our mad vehicular traffic that insists on flattening any civilised system that threatens to slow it down, I remember the contrasting scenes that I witnessed in the university town of Cambridge in the UK a decade ago. The narrow roads in Cambridge had, even in 1998, rising bollards — mechanically operated foot-high dividers that would rise up from the road surface after allowing only public vehicles such as buses to pass using sensor technology — in specified areas.

In our most crowded city roads, why cannot there be rising bollards that function once every 5 minutes or so,  allowing pedestrians to cross? Our metallic monsters would fear these rising metallic barriers, and automatically slow down, reducing our blood pressure and enabling everyone, young, old and disabled, to cross without fear. This is technologically possible in cities that are ready to spend billions on other infrastructure. Money cannot be the problem.

To me, pedestrian rights is an issue which is only now attaining critical mass. And we will keep up the pressure.



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