Sometimes politicians do talk about a worthwhile idea but it does not make news, partly because of their talk record and partly because the media fails to grasp the significance of the idea. This is how Aaditya Thackeray failed to hit the headlines despite promising to make major arterial roads in Mumbai pedestrian-friendly.
With glitzy metro lines, coastal roads and flyovers hogging attention, it is easy to forget that pedestrian trips account for a quarter to a third of all trips in Indian cities.
And despite the abysmal state of our footpaths – one of every ten traffic-related deaths in the country is a pedestrian -- fatalism prevents us from demanding pedestrian rights.
Addressing the gathering at the inauguration of the southbound arm of the new flyover at Kala Nagar last Sunday, Aaditya Thackeray, the minister for environment and tourism, had said that apart from arterial roads, pavements and pedestrian crossings too would be improved.
The problem is that pavements have never got the importance they deserve, as we are obsessed with motorised transport. It is a shame that the British-built island city in Mumbai has proper footpaths but this can’t be said of the suburbs which developed post-Independence.
It is another matter that the existing footpaths are uneven, full of obstructions and encroachment and at times even used by two-wheelers. We should actually be training our steeplechase athletes and motocross riders on the pavements of Mumbai.
Traffic police and municipal chowkies hog footpath space; the infamous Marine Drive rape happened in one such police post.
Here, hoardings are more important than avenue trees; a huge banyan tree was recently hacked at Girgaum Chowpatty in the heart of the city by hoarding firm contractors posing as civic employees.
We can only dream of the neat, tree-lined sidewalks in developed countries. According to Terence Bendixson, president of the UK’s Pedestrians Association for many years and author of ‘Instead of Cars’, the conditions of pedestrians in Mumbai are comparable to those in England in the 19th century.
Believe it or not, there are guidelines for footpaths in India. Footpaths in residential areas need to be wide enough (1.8 m) for two wheelchairs to pass each other. In commercial zones, they have to be even wider, i.e. 2.5 m. Besides, the height of the kerb above the carriageway should not exceed 150 mm.
As for design, a footpath needs to be a flat walking surface (to prevent water stagnation), with guide tiles laid along its length to assist the visually impaired. Ideally, this walking zone should be clear of all obstructions, including utility ducts, poles, electricity, water or telephone boxes, trees and signages.
Even the census brings out the primacy of the pedestrian. According to the 2011 national census, about 23 per cent of work trips happen on foot, 13 per cent on bicycle and 18 per cent on public transport, with only 15 per cent of trips on private transport.
Researchers say that the deaths of pedestrians in accidents is under-reported in India, as they are not classified properly. Official statistics suggest that pedestrians comprise less than 10 per cent of road accident deaths whereas the figure in third world countries is approximately 40 per cent of traffic deaths.
According to a Union transport ministry report published in 2019, the average daily pedestrian fatalities in India went up from 34 in 2014 to 62 in 2018.
Significantly, pedestrian deaths rose by 84 per cent between 2014 and 2018, says the report. A total of 12,330 pedestrians were killed across the country in 2014 and the number steadily rose to 22,656 in 2018.
West Bengal tops the list of pedestrian fatalities, with 2,618 deaths from 2014 to 2018, followed by Maharashtra (2,515).
While 25 per cent of the pedestrians killed on Maharashtra roads were in the 35-45 age group, 5 per cent were under 18 years and 10 per cent were senior citizens.
Mumbai traffic police records show that 447 people were killed in road mishaps in the city in 2019. According to the Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative for Global Road Safety, 90 per cent of these comprised pedestrians, cyclists and bikers.
Super budget slash
‘Super footpaths’ were in the offing in Mumbai when the pandemic struck; the first of these was to be a six-metre-wide walkway from Siddhivinayak Metro station to Sewri via Prabhadevi and KEM Hospital. No one’s talking about it now, not even Aaditya Thackeray. In fact, the BMC budget for footpath repairs has been slashed by 86 per cent.
Ironically, it was during the pandemic that the importance of footpaths was felt acutely. Hopefully, it will become an election issue too.
What better way to know a city than walking. Writer and journalist Khushwant Singh wrote about how he enjoyed his daily walk from his house in Colaba to his office at The Illustrated Weekly at CSMT. Arun Sadhu, another writer-journalist, got to know Mumbai by tramping its streets.
Veteran journalist Vidyadhar Date, an ardent advocate of pedestrian rights and public transport and the author of ‘Traffic in the era of climate change’, is carrying on in their tradition. He says that even in a city like Colombo, one can walk for miles without ever getting off the footpath.
Indeed, there is no reason why Mumbai’s footpaths cannot be of Colombo class when the BMC has set aside Rs 1,600cr for the improvement of roads even in this pandemic. And surely, the annual ‘study trips’ of our municipal corporators to Paris-London-Tokyo ought to result in some learning.
The handful of citizens’ groups in Mumbai zealously guard their footpaths and want a ‘footpath authority’ that will give local residents a greater say in maintaining their sidewalks.
The media too should wake up to the issue. Instead of merely running brand promotion campaigns such as Happy Streets, it must crusade for pedestrian rights.
To begin with, the media can ask Aaditya Thackeray to make the stretch from Bandra railway station to Kala Nagar, where he lives, pedestrian friendly.
Politicians may promise us skywalks and the skies themselves but we must first make them walk the talk on footpaths.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.
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