When did you last take a walk in your city? Either for work or pleasure.
Can’t remember? You are perhaps not alone.
In most Indian cities, pedestrians are losing out street use entirely to motorised traffic cars and two/three wheelers- assisted by unauthorised encroachments on the streets by all and sundry, that is if garbage is not strewn or the street is not dug up for some ongoing work.
This vicious assault of intrusion on a public space is a cumulative result of not only planning failures but also a subtle sense of newfound freedom by its own users, gradually built up over time.
There are multiple reasons for the marginalisation of pedestrians in our cities, but we shall examine only a couple of them. Let me try to explain this as an ordinary road user in nontechnical terms.
Let us begin at the beginning. We shall look at this planning failure from two points of view. First physical and the second socio-economic.
Almost all Indian cities, towns and metropolia are the grown-up versions of the old Indian core town, which was a compact walkable and efficient entity. The newer growth has fully surrounded this now so-called ‘old town’ in numerous cities. Life was centred around the family and the neighbourhood (NH) was the social network providing the extended family. The NH was small and so was the town. Almost the entire town was walkable or at most cycle able. The longer distance was covered by a cycle rickshaw or horse-drawn ‘tongas’. Streets were necessarily narrow to cater to this limited demand. At a very rough estimate, the roads occupied about 7-10% of the total city area even though the net residential densities were very high, about 700-800 persons per acre (ppa) at some places.
So it is safe to assume that it must have taken a lot of courage and ‘vision’ in the first Master Plan of Delhi to deviate to a very futuristic level in terms of delineating some areas with gross residential densities to as high as 150-200 ppa (considered medium to high for a planned area), with the road provision of 15 to 18%. Areas with low-density 50ppa were compensated with a higher proportion (10%) of road space.
In simple terms a fairly lavish standard of road widths was followed. Residential streets were to be 45 feet right of way (ROW), collector streets 60 feet and feeder roads 80 feet. This was in the year 1961.
With this plan, the die was cast.
Several revisions of the Master plan have taken place since. The theme of environment, heritage, re-densification, FAR increase, safe city, green city, smart city, disabled friendly city, the 15-minute city, transit-oriented development (TOD), a network of metro, underground and overhead roads, work from home and many such state of art ideas have been introduced from time to time but most importantly, even in the revised Master plan for 2041, the format of the road hierarchy has basically remained the same.
All this while we watched the world around us change, up till the historic economic landmark developments of the early 90s.
Our past, quite like that of many other countries, has been a long history of deprivation. Well before independence, and during the difficult few decades following the founding of the country, we were accustomed to leading a frugal life. Incomes were low, and money had to be judiciously spent- mainly on the basic essentials. The choice of goods was few but those were built to last. The national economy was Government controlled. This phase lasted till the introduction of economic liberalisation in 1991.
The following decades saw new energy induced in the towns and cities. The pace of not only growth but also development accelerated to greater heights. As the world opened out, India gradually began to recognise the rise of the “great middle class” (GMC). The term “GMC” is a generic description of a group that gets bunched with a rouge element, that may constitute a smaller but more visible/conspicuous cohort amongst them. This new breed of Indians, roughly equal to the entire population of France / South Africa or Italy, was by and large, preoccupied with the zeal of announcing their arrival by displaying their newly acquired disposable income and driving the demand for goods and services. The humble minimalistic slogan of Roti Kapda aur Makan was appended with Ek gaadi ki shaan. Besides expressing themselves by building gaudy houses, unauthorised construction, and outlandish weddings, the most popular avenue was the purchase of a new car. Or two or three cars- The bigger the better. The Nano, a small car introduced for the masses was virtually shoved out of the game because it was too small to accommodate the inflated ego of the GMC. This obsession with the display of status relives our feudal past on our roads. This group of citizens is self-centred, oblivious to its surroundings and totally unconnected with the reality of the damage continuously caused by its stubborn ignorance.
Along with the GMC, another group was emerging as the bye product of the economic boom with few formal jobs. This was the ‘informal sector’, which largely made a living on the road/encroached on the road. A large chunk of this group emerged recently as the group of self-employed E rickshaw drivers- an ungovernable bunch of essential menace on the roads.
By 2020-21, when the DDA was struggling to make the master plan for 2041, trying all tricks to figure out the problems of housing, slums, environment, and all means to save a chocking city, the GMC was unabashedly expressing themselves most intensely on the roads. The same roads that were laid out to cater to the traffic in 1961.
Along with the newfound prosperity, the GMC also developed a newfound pride in the issue of ‘nationalism’. They would willingly stand up for the playing of the national anthem in the theatre but don’t give a damn about civic responsibility and indulge in road rage. Issues such as global warming and climate change only come home with their school-going children’s homework. Unbreathable air and water pollution is just a discussion topic.
The vehicle ownership (of all 2 and 3 and 4 wheelers) has far outnumbered the projected figures and has usurped almost all the road area. Compounding this is the contemptuous attitude that accompanies the new, big car. The civic authorities and the police have run out of ideas as to what to do with the ever-increasing traffic and find refuge in technological solutions such as sending traffic violation ‘challans’ at your home. There is no clear respite in sight. Think about this when you are caught in a traffic jam, driving alone, amongst a sea of similar cars on the road!
When these monsters are not on the move they are parked-mainly where we the citizens are supposed to walk. Visit any residential colony the story is quite the same. Our entire thinking has been oriented to car-centric planning- indeed life.
If the trend of the current scene is projected, then the future is surely very worrying. The Niti Aayog estimates that by 2036 the total urban population of India is likely to be 73%. The car sale figures are going up and up.
In the face of this prevailing crisis, the authorities seem to be either asleep or have failed to grasp the basic problems altogether. Government and the media promote the sale of newer, more exotic cars. A lot of planners still think that the problems of traffic and pedestrians (like many other problems) would be resolved by ‘expert suggested ‘ control mechanisms. It is amusing to note that many WhatsApp and such groups of professional planners and architects diligently circulate and discuss the success stories of pedestrians dominating the roads in the western context –thereby suggesting that we should follow their recipe for success in our city.
In a state notorious for making plans –but not following the same- surely it’s time to truly think out of the box.