Chennai pedestrians need saving. Statistics of Chennai pedestrians dying on the road are alarming.
But first: Is Chennai a walkable city? Not for the faint-hearted, the elderly or the disabled. Not for children, surely. The city acquires a busy character from its congested quaint enclaves like Mylapore, Triplicane, Mambalam, Saidapet and George Town with their warren of narrow streets. But old enclaves or new, Chennai does not really support walking.
Things are so bad that the Smart City’s Pedestrian Plaza on Pondy Bazaar became a talking point for how it helped walkers.
Poor record of road safety
If road safety represents a tragedy of the commons, Chennai is a prominent victim. The data put together from police sources by Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group, popularly known as CAG, says 2,191 Chennai pedestrians were killed between 2015 and 2020 and 9,754 sustained injuries.
Even with the depressing effect of the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020, the number of all classes of people who died in road accidents in Chennai is shocking: 872 versus 1,262 in the pre-COVID year of 2019 (NCRB data). The lockdowns and severe disruption seem to have had no major impact. And without strong action by the DMK government, fast cars, two-wheelers, impatient buses and vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists will continue to be in deadly conflict.
Cities need safety innovation. India is today a major motoring country (3.06 million vehicles produced just in 2020-21, SIAM data), but it has no rational road system. Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who often laments primitive driving practices, bad infrastructure and RTO corruption, said at a conclave on Monday that artificial intelligence and drone tech should be deployed to progress on road safety.
But then, there are so many things that can be done immediately, at low cost, along with putting eyes in the sky. Mr. Gadkari has been speaking about some of these in the past. One easy engineering hack to improve safety is to raise the level of pedestrian crossings.
Lessons from New York for Chennai
Last week, New York City, under its pro-walking and cycling Mayor Eric Adams, resolved to raise 100 pedestrian crossings a year by four inches, to make it safer for walkers and more uncomfortable for fast vehicle drivers. Many people have died or suffered injury in that city and the numbers are rising.
Chennai grudgingly included token raised level crossings on T. Nagar’s Pondy Bazaar, outside Holy Angels school. There are some 40,000 intersections in New York, but it is not clear how many exist in the Greater Chennai area. This is something for the new Mayor, Priya Rajan and the newly elected Councillors to take up at the Metropolitan Planning Committee for the city.
We need so many more of these crossings at dangerous intersections, where roads are now wider and vehicles ignore traffic signals. The scientific way of picking these spots is to look at road intersections and mid-block crossings where the accident rate has been high. It is feasible to start with school and college zones, hospital sites, Metro Rail and suburban railway stations and bus termini like Koyambedu.
A safety ‘dance’
A second innovation, which has been occasionally mooted by road safety experts even for Chennai, is the Barnes Dance for traffic signals. This method, now 60 years old, is named after Henry Barnes, an American traffic engineer who sought to reduce pedestrian casualties in the 1960s, by programming all signals to simultaneously turn red at an intersection, to help people cross in all directions at once.
Chennai needs this system badly (and so do other crowded cities and towns), along with police enforcement of red lights which is absent today.
Politicians, police and careless engineers seem to treat road traffic deaths and injuries as the opportunity cost of economic growth. What else can explain the populism surrounding road rule enforcement?
Just a few days ago, Mangal Singh, a food delivery agent on a two-wheeler, who was just 20 years old, collided at Koyambedu with two women pedestrians, one of them working in the police, and died in hospital. The pedestrians were injured. These are preventable deaths and injuries.
Courts go unheeded
This was recognised by the Supreme Court in 2014 while hearing a case filed by a Coimbatore-based orthopaedician, Dr. S. Rajasekaran. The court wanted the State Road Safety Council and the District Road Safety Committees to do their job. A slew of directions followed, but the situation remains unaltered.
The Tamil Nadu government says on the website of the Transport Department, “As far as Chennai city is concerned, Government have constituted a District Road Safety Committee for Chennai under the Chairmanship of Commissioner of Police, Chennai to address various Road Safety related issues in Chennai City.”
Chief Minister M.K. Stalin should direct the Police to publish the minutes of the committee’s meetings, and call for suggestions and complaints from the public. The committee could meet public representatives every quarter. The State Lead Agency formed to advance road safety also needs to be more open in its working, publishing its deliberations and decisions promptly.
The safety question is paramount in the pandemic, as people do revenge travel, and offences such as wrong side driving increase.
A pandemic-era public opinion poll conducted by the US company 3M found the following major concerns: Drivers texting or speaking on the phone while driving (91%); negligence of other drivers (90%); night visibility (90%); large vehicles (buses, trucks, and trailers) (89%); curved roads or sharp turns (89%); traffic congestion (89%) and signs or road markings that are difficult to see (89%). Obviously, all these apply to Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu.
Who is responsible for bringing order and getting motorists to abide by the law? Who will prosecute civic agency personnel for neglect that causes accidents, as provided for under the new Motor Vehicles (Act)? These are unanswered questions. For now, the tragedy of the commons continues to take its toll.