Imagine this: all of your regular go-to destinations — from shopping areas, schools and colleges, workplaces, healthcare centres and other recreational hangouts — are just a 15 minute-walk or bike ride away. This concept, dubbed ‘15-minute city’, following its successful implementation in many parts of Paris since mid-2020, has led to many global cities considering adoption of the same. This raises the question, can Chennai, too, become a 15-minute city?
Proposed by Carlos Moreno, a professor at the Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University, in 2016, the idea has gained a lot of traction, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is being looked upon as a key tool in building more resilient and sustainable cities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities all over the world dealt with lockdowns and faced shortage of basic necessities. Many people lost their jobs. Economic and access inequalities became more evident with public transport shut down, giving an edge to people who owned private automobiles. In such a situation, in view of the success of the 15-minute city concept in Paris, C40 Cities, World Health Organisation (WHO), and UN-Habitat encouraged its implementation across cities, to improve the quality of life in the context of COVID-19 and beyond. Chennai incidentally was the sixth Indian city to join C40 Cities in 2016.
The idea behind 15-minute cities is to reduce the dependency of urban residents on automobiles, leading to lower rates of pollution, as well as improvement in the health of the people, who will mostly walk or cycle to access their basic needs. People are also able to save time that is spent on travelling.
Demystifying the 15-minute city concept through the lens of Chennai
Explaining what a 15-minute city could mean in the context of Chennai, Santhosh Loganaathan, Senior Research Associate – Urban Development at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), offers a hypothetical scenario in which a person living in, say, Adyar would not need to travel more than 15 minutes to access all the basic amenities they may need. Having said that, they cannot expect to reach a place like the Chennai airport within 15 minutes, as that is not a daily need.
“15-minute cities are cities that not just have schools, hospitals etc within a 15-minute radius,” says Santhosh, adding that what matters is having safe and comfortable access to them by walking within 15-minutes. “This would mean having streets with connected and continuous footpaths, neighbourhoods that are traffic-calmed.”
Apart from basic amenities, rapid transit points must also be at a 15-minute walkable or cyclable distance to make it a truly 15-minute city. Says Vinoth Kumar, an urban planner, “I should be able to take a 15-minute walk to a metro station or a bus stop [from my house] to reach other parts of the city.”
Easily accessible rapid transit points are important because a lot of people travel to parts of Chennai significantly away from their homes, not usually at a 15-minute distance. From 2004 to 2018, a 46-year-old resident of Chetpet, Vedagiri Vijayakumar used to go to Sholinganallur for work, travelling for two hours in his car. “If my workplace had been at a walkable distance, I most certainly would have walked,” says Vedagiri. Currently, however, he runs his business operations from his home. “So, my carbon footprint and vehicle use are minimal,” adds Vedagiri.
Why are people not giving up private motorised vehicles?
In a 15-minute city, people would rarely need to travel in their private cars, since they can meet all their basic needs and also get their regular work done by walking or cycling. However, private automobile count has doubled in Tamil Nadu in a decade with 3 crore vehicles, and Chennai carrying one-fifth of the total, that is, 60 lakh vehicles. This comes seven years after the Greater Chennai Corporation introduced a non-motorised transport policy in 2014 to promote walking and cycling, by laying walking and cycling infrastructure. The policy aimed to increase the share of walking and cycling trips to over 40% by 2018.
Urban planners shed more light on why people still do not prefer walking or cycling in the city. “A resident may have everything within walking distance. The problem here is that roads are not pedestrian-friendly. You can see people speeding, which may put pedestrians in danger,” says Santhosh.
Vinoth points out that the land-share given to pedestrians is inadequate: “If there is a 20-feet road, 3 to 4 feet is marked for pedestrians, but in that space, they [Corporation/civic agencies] will plant trees, place transformers and sometimes even vendors may encroach the platforms. Where is the space for walking?”
Highlighting the gaps in the way cycling tracks have been laid, Santhosh explains, “Cycling infrastructure needs to be continuous. Presently, it is well thought out, but needs to be implemented well. Along the cycling tracks, you have a lot of obstacles on the way. It needs to be continuous and needs to connect to destinations properly; just having a cycling track for 2-3 kilometres does not make sense if they don’t lead to the final destinations.”
Will people-friendly streets foster a 15-minute city?
In 2019, GCC created a pedestrian plaza in the shopping hub of Pondy Bazaar with large pedestrian land share — wide footpaths, benches for people to sit on and park equipment for children to play.
ITDP and GCC have also joined hands to implement a ‘Mega Streets Project’ for Anna Nagar, Tondiarpet, Velachery, Nungambakkam, Adyar and Mylapore under Phase 1 with the express aim of transforming all the arterial and sub-arterial streets in the neighbourhood in alignment with three guiding principles: enhanced mobility, livability and utility.
Santhosh gives a rundown of elements in the project that reflect the idea of a 15-minute city: “The neighbourhoods will be designed as self-sustained neighbourhoods. The focus would be on how to make the neighbourhood connected, prioritising the transit routes first. On these streets, walkability would be improved. They will also look at how these roads can be connected to various destinations, especially schools and parks.
A cycling plan is also being worked upon, as part of which they would be identifying areas that can have cycle tracks. Other roads that may not necessarily have cycle tracks would also be marked, for vehicles to move at a slower pace, so that the cyclists are not at risk.”
Moving towards a 15-minute city: What matters most
Vinoth says that urban planning must be people-centric, and not vehicle-centric, for Chennai to inch closer to the 15-minute city concept. Mixed neighbourhoods must be encouraged during the urban planning exercise. Any zone, when it is being planned or designed, must accommodate residences, parks, schools, shops, healthcare facilities within a 1-2 kilometre radius.
“Mixed neighbourhoods make the city sustainable. When land use is allocated, the GCC should not just give permission to industries. The industries must have a norm to accommodate respective employees and their families, which also means that there should be health and educational amenities for a decent livelihood. This plan has to come via the master plan from the higher level and be implemented at an area level,” explains Vinoth.