“How can I be encouraged to walk in Chennai if the roads do not have space for pedestrians?” 23-year-old Varsha Ganesh, a resident of KK Nagar asks. “I take share autos or my two-wheeler these days, even if I have to cover a short distance.”
Varsha is not the only person to feel that way.
“The situation is no different anywhere else in the city. Pedestrian safety has always been the last priority for the government,” says Raghukumar Choodamani, a civic activist from Perambur.
Last year, pedestrians suffered 35% of the total road fatalities in Chennai. A study identified Koyambedu, OMR, Chennai Central, Egmore and George Town as accident hotspots involving pedestrians.
“A two-wheeler crashed into my uncle recently in South Chennai,” says Vidya Sriram. “He went for his morning walk and shortly after we got a call that he had met with an accident.”
Pedestrian accidents across the city happen not only due to poor behaviour of vehicle drivers but also due to inadequate pedestrian infrastructure. Chennai’s poor record on road safety has been particularly harmful to the city’s pedestrians.
Issues faced by pedestrians on Chennai streets
“There is no space for pedestrians these days. Shops and vehicles have taken over footpaths. We are forced to walk on the road alongside vehicles,” says Arockiya Sagaya Mary from Tondiarpet. She walks to shops and the church regularly.
“Even bus route roads here do not have space for people who walk. While crossing the roads also, we have to be always vigilant,” she adds.
“I walk to and from work on East Coast Road. It is a pain because of the lack of footpaths. The 2nd Avenue has patches of footpaths but even those are occupied by street vendors,” says Disha Kuzhaveli.
“Every time we lodge a complaint, the [traffic police] officials clear the footpaths of vehicular encroachments and close the petition,” says Raghukumar. “But vehicles return to the cleared spaces as soon as the officials are away.”
Many residents across Chennai echo the same issue. This problem is even more pronounced in mixed-use zones where restaurants, commercial establishments and residences co-exist.
Bollards are supposed to prevent parking of vehicles on footpaths but not every footpath in the city has them. Even when they are present, they do not always deter vehicles.
“KK Nagar has a cycling and a walking pathway with bollards. However, vehicles even push the bollards and park there. Sometimes they park in the midst of bollards too,” says Varsha.
Even though GCC claims it is responsible for removing service utility equipment from the footpaths, it does not happen often, allege residents.
“There are huge transformers on the broken footpaths in Mandavelipakkam,” says Vignesh Rajendran, a resident of the area.
Another issue residents point out is that footpaths are not repaired after roads are dug for infrastructure.
Pedestrians also do not prefer to use some of the subways and foot over bridges (FOBs) due to design issues. “FOBs are inaccessible sometimes even closed,” adds Disha about the infrastructure in ECR.
Subways across the city are poorly lit and unsafe or simply close for use by pedestrians, forcing them to cross busy streets.
The lack of pedestrian infrastructure affects those without access to private vehicles.
“I do not know how to ride a bike or a car. So, public transport is my only way to navigate the city,” says A Rashmi from Saidapet. She uses the Little Mount metro regularly. “In the evenings, the signal near the metro station is switched off, making it even more dangerous to cross the road,” she says.
In some areas even if signals are working, there is not enough time for pedestrians to cross the road. For instance, at Ashok Pillar, there is only a 10-second window for pedestrians to cross the road.
Agencies working on pedestrian infrastructure in Chennai
The Department of Bus Route Roads and Quality Control of Greater Chennai Corporation is responsible for building pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. Apart from footpaths, they are responsible for building tabletop crossings and ramps.
The department is also supposed to remove all the obstructions and encroachments from the footpaths- including clearing junction boxes, transformers, and other elements. To discourage vehicles from being parked on the footpaths, they are entrusted to install cement concrete bollards.
FOBs and subways are also built by Chennai Corporation for pedestrians.
“Other than GCC, Greater Chennai Traffic Police, Tamil Nadu Highways Department and other departments working with roads and public spaces come together in a meeting to discuss roads and road safety,” says T. Saravanabavanantham, Superintending Engineer (SE) of the Bus Route Roads department.
“We take inputs from GCTP, health department, transport department, revenue department and other bodies, and then implement pedestrian infrastructure on roads,” adds the SE.
“Currently, out of the 471 Bus Route Roads, 171 roads have standard footpaths maintained by Chennai Corporation,” says the SE. “Every year we get Rs. 20-30 crores for repairing the [pedestrian] infrastructure. We also put up indicative signages near schools and provide street lights,” says the SE.
“Regulation, enforcement [of traffic rules], creating awareness and investigation of accident cases come under the ambit of traffic police,” says the Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic-South) N.M. Mylvahanan.
Prioritising pedestrian infrastructure and influencing driver behaviour
“A fundamental reason for inadequate pedestrian infrastructure is that pedestrians are thought of as second-class citizens who need to be kicked off the roads,” says Sumana Narayanan, Senior Researcher with Citizen, consumer and civic Action Group (CAG). “Any motorist on the road would think that they are better off than a pedestrian.”
But any planning for road safety and behavioural change should include a conscious effort to consider the view of pedestrians and prioritise their needs.
GCTP has brought about spot fines to increase traffic rules enforcement to maintain road safety. “Stressing on helmets could have reduced the fatality rate in accidents. However, there may not be a direct correlation between increased penalty and pedestrian safety,” says Sumana.
On the other hand, Sumana says that ensuring vehicles do not cross stop lines at signals could have some impact on pedestrian safety in Chennai.
Transport experts say that policymakers and enforcement officials must move away from car-centric planning to truly make roads safer for pedestrians.
Efforts to improve experience of pedestrians in Chennai
The city traffic police did a study across Chennai and identified 104 accident hotspots in Chennai.
“The lighting of the roads, visibility of traffic signals, drunken driving, pedestrian safety and other features were studied. Then, Rs. 1 crore was earmarked to put up cat’s eye, barricades and road bumps,” says Harsh Singh, Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Traffic Police (North).
“In the north zone, we have brought about such interventions in 11 out of 19 accident hotspots,” says the DC.
With respect to pedestrian-friendly footpaths, GCTP has been acting on public complaints about vehicle parking on footpaths and other public areas, says the JCoP. “We put a lock on cars and tow two-wheelers as and when we get complaints.”
People can send complaints via social media. Photos of the area after the vehicles have been moved are shared with the public.
The civic body is also looking to create more pedestrian-friendly streets in Chennai through the Mega Streets Project which is currently in the approval stage, says the SE, adding that it will be similar to the Pedestrian Plaza in T Nagar.
Adyar, Velachery, Mylapore, Anna Nagar, George Town, Thiruvottiyur, Tondiarpet and Nungambakkam in Chennai have been chosen for the pedestrian project.
On their part, pedestrians can equip themselves with information about their right to the city’s streets and demand better facilities.
- Caution at a road junction: Vehicles must slow down while approaching intersections, crosswalks and those areas where pedestrians use the space. (Rule 8 of The Rules of the Road Regulations, 1989)
- Right of way: No vehicle can go on footpaths, cycling tracks and uncontrolled pedestrian crossings unless a police officer permits it. These areas are specifically only for pedestrians. (Rule 11 of The Rules of the Road Regulations, 1989)
- Parking of vehicle: No vehicle can use the space near or on a crosswalk, footpath, or traffic light for parking. (Rule 15 of The Rules of the Road Regulations, 1989)
What can you do to make your roads pedestrian-friendly?
- Coordinate with the traffic police in your area and formulate a traffic management plan. “We take inputs from local RWAs, traders, auto drivers and other local stakeholders and understand the traffic issues at a micro-level,” says JCoP.
- You can write a letter to the SE of Bus Route Roads regarding broken or maintenance of pedestrian infrastructure.
Superintending Engineer (Bus Route Roads & Quality Control)
Greater Chennai Corporation
Ripon Building, Chennai-600003
Phone: 044 25619302
Unless pedestrians are considered important road users and given the same consideration as any other mode share, their marginalisation will continue.
Localised solutions must be evolved across various parts of the city with active stakeholder consultation with pedestrians in order to make using Chennai’s streets a safe and pleasant experience for pedestrians.