Wide footpaths, bright street lights, a separate lane for cyclists, designated parking space and benches to relax on while shopping. The transformation of Thiyagaraya Road in Pondy Bazaar into a pedestrian plaza has redefined the shopping experience for many residents of Chennai.
For the first time ever in Chennai, a dedicated space was allocated for pedestrians for a hassle-free shopping experience in a commercial street. At this part of T Nagar, vehicle users and pedestrians now coexist without disturbing each other.
The pedestrian plaza was much needed for Pondy Bazaar, where citizens shop throughout the year. The changes envisaged as part of the pedestrianisation project were hailed by many, especially for its thoughtful facilities such as accessible footpaths for the differently-abled and streamlined on-road parking systems.
But over the one year since the plaza was actually inaugurated, it has elicited mixed response. There are several issues that have cropped up: street vendors encroaching the plaza, haphazard parking of vehicles, tipplers using the plaza during nights and hygiene issues. “Pavements are littered with food and bottles late nights and in the early mornings. There should be a watch on tipplers to ensure that space is not abused,” says Lingam M, a regular walker.
Accommodating street vendors
Street vendors like Pachaiamma M who were not allotted a designated space at the corporation complex continue to encroach the pedestrian plaza. As the corporation has not fulfilled the promise of allocating space in the complex, these 12 vendors have become the victim of the systemic lapse.
For the past four decades, 58-year-old Pachaiamma has been selling fruits on the pavements of Thiyagaraya Road. “I am among the 12 street vendors who have not been allotted a space in the complex yet. I have no choice but to come to the plaza to eke out a living,” she says.
For vendors like her, these pavements are the only place to earn their daily bread. “How many customers will I get, if I move into the complex along with tens of competitors?” Pachaiamma questions.
The way forward is to have a separate vending zone for informal street vendors. The Centre for Urban Equity (CUE) sees street vending as an opportunity for buying goods and services at convenient locations and affordable price. It provides self-employment for large numbers of people; links formal sectors with clients; keeps streets clean, busy and safe and creates an interesting city environment.
The other major problem is the haphazard traffic that chokes the stretch. “Vehicles are parked anywhere in a random manner, and the lanes are hardly regulated, given the negligence and lack of responsibility among civic authorities. A clear direction on lane management would have made the road so much more friendly for passers-by,” says Balaji Vijayaraghavan, a resident of West Mambalam.
How can these bottlenecks be resolved? Parking management is the only way and the civic body and the traffic police should work hand-in-hand. “Vehicles should not be allowed beyond the HP junction and the parking lots at Panagal park and Venkatnarayana Road can be utilised for cars. However, two wheelers can be allowed as they do not choke the road. Mass transportation facilities like taxis, autos and buses can be allowed too,” adds Balaji.
Although there are lapses such as the above, visitors find the overall experience pleasant and refreshing. “The designated space for parking vehicles makes our work easier. I need not fear getting run over. Design elements in this stretch, such as wide pavements with seating facilities for children and elders, are rarely seen in other commercial streets in the city,” says N Balasubramanian, a regular shopper.
Indeed, other commercial areas do not offer the same experience as Pondy Bazaar does. For instance, Khader Nawaz Khan Road, a popular street lined with cafes and resto bars, has not been able to solve the problem of traffic that eat up the sidewalks meant for pedestrians.
Ramya S finds the integration of arts and cultural performances with the public space an important feature, something that places the plaza on par with global landmarks such as Times Square. “The cultural activities and street performances light up the street and I look forward to visiting post-pandemic,” she adds.
What lies in store for other streets?
The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), Chennai Smart City Limited (CSCL) and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) have come together to ideate to make major streets pedestrian-friendly for enhancing safety and livability.
While the Pondy Bazaar Pedestrian plaza is a one-of-a-kind initiative, Venugopal AV, Senior Research Associate for Urban Development at ITDP says that the same concept can be scaled up to other parts of the city, but the design has to be developed based on the context of each individual street — its opportunities and challenges.
“The idea of prioritising streets for pedestrians should be discussed with the stakeholders (shops, residents, GCC engineers, etc.), their concerns have to be addressed through trials and only after that, can we come up with designs based on the usage of the street, availability of space and other such local factors,” Venugopal adds.
In a bid to scale up the city’s infrastructure, the civic body has initiated the Mega Streets Programme. In Phase 1, it aims to transform six neighbourhoods, with 110 Kms of streets, into ‘complete’ streets with walkers as priority.
An official from GCC stated that MC Road in Thiruvottiyur, Shanthi Colony in Anna Nagar and Khader Nawaz Khan Road in Nungambakkam are some of the streets that are currently being analysed for possible redesign.
The plan for the busy MC Road stretch includes facilitation of movement of cars and two-wheelers, while creating safe sidewalks and regulating operation of street vendors. “In the upcoming project, MC Road will have a battery vehicle for pick-up and drop services, metro rail and suburban train connectivity and skywalk,” said the GCC official.
S Thurai, a trader on MC Road, points to an important facet that requires special attention if the stretch is to be made pedestrian-friendly. “Although the stretch is a commercial road, individual shop owners do not have separate parking lots, due to which traffic bottlenecks and pile-ups are common. Parking needs to be streamlined in order to ensure that the road is safe for pedestrians,” he says.
For Khader Nawaz Khan (KNK) Road, the tentative plan is to re-route traffic networks to make it a one-way street. “This will reduce the dependency on KNK as a primary connector between Nungambakkam High Road and Greams Road, while also reducing the number of vehicles plying through it. Making the street one-way will also allow for wider pedestrian footpaths and organised on-street parking,” says Nithya Ramesh, Director – Urban Design, Jana Urban Space Foundation.
The plan also includes facilities for cyclists, other non-motorised transport, ease of access emergency vehicles, and garbage collection vehicles with restricted timings. The infrastructure of the road will also be improved by installing stone benches, street furniture, public art, lighting, landscape and branding.
Shop owners on KNK Road also raise the issue of lack of parking space. However, Nithya adds that the provision of parking to cater to the number of users that visit KNK Road will be challenging. “To aid this, promotion of non-motorised transport options and public transport can be encouraged to off-set parking requirements,” she says.
While plans are afoot to make these streets pedestrian-friendly, there are evidently several other long term factors that need to be carefully considered: sustainable rehabilitation of street vendors, maintenance of cleanliness, parking management and of course, trader as well as shoppers’ needs.