Road traffic in India is chaotic at the best of times. Most cities have acquired unsustainable levels of vehicle population and face the consequences in the form of impossible traffic gridlocks. The solutions that states propose too often are short-sighted and short-term—more flyovers, expensive metro rail projects and the like—rather than focus on more difficult but necessary long-term ones including better quality, frequent and affordable public transit options. This ought to include investment in facilitating non-motorised transport options including cycling and walking.
A walk down virtually any street in most cities in India will show this is hardly the case. Footpaths are often non-existent, poorly constructed and maintained or ruthlessly encroached upon. Action from authorities is more often than not targeted at those with the least power—street vendors—while encroachment by big stores, private educational and medical institutions or eateries often goes unchecked. Pavements are regularly taken up for parking and planners aim to prevent this by deploying bollards that render the footpaths unusable for persons in wheelchairs. Similarly, the reliance on foot overbridges and subways to help pedestrians cross busy roads clearly shows a lack of understanding of road users. Many find subways poorly maintained and unsafe, and overbridges inaccessible, especially to the aged, ailing and disabled.
The consequences of such poor planning are clear: Those who can afford to opt for private vehicles even to travel short distances, while those who cannot risk their lives by jaywalking. The Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India report of 2019 shows that 7.7% of deaths in road accidents in India were of pedestrians. In Tamil Nadu, 1,044 out of 10,525 road accident deaths were of pedestrians while in Chennai, it was 126 out of 1,252 deaths.
The way forward is to adopt an integrated approach by states and civic bodies that puts focus on public and non-motorised transit options. They should bring local residents, vendors and businesses onboard to ensure good pedestrian and cycle pathways that are universally accessible to aged and disabled persons are not exceptions but the norm. Only a long-term bottom-up approach centring users will ensure livable and even ‘smart’ cities.