Pedestrian Blues

Walking on the roads in any Indian city is an unpleasant business. Dodging traffic, sidestepping puddles of water, ducking under sign boards, navigating around heaps of construction material always conveniently dumped on footpaths - a pedestrian is faced with an unending series of obstacles. Most of these are because of the sheer apathy towards a walker by the public authorities, somehow you're just not important enough to be provided a nice walkable pathway.

Click here to see a map of the problematic pedestrian crossings


But what is perhaps the most perverse of such obstacles is when the authorities deliberately erect barriers that come right in the way of what would otherwise be the most convenient and logical path to follow. Usually there is no rationale to these barriers at all, other than complete apathy towards the pedestrian and his/her needs. At other times they are created so as to keep the pedestrians out of the way of vehicular traffic and to ensure that the vehicles can move unhindered. “Signal free” it's called and it consists of eliminating pedestrian crossings. And for good measure, large, expensive and fancy barricades are erected, sometimes with barbed wire thrown in, to prevent pedestrians from taking the easy route and forcing them to take what is often an extremely inconvenient detour. And which, since walking is such an ordeal to begin with, they are loathe to take. The result is one that one sees everyday, everywhere, if only one were to look. Desperate pedestrians clambering over barricades, squeezing through gaps, vaulting over walls and crawling through fences. Motorists, reckless as they are, find such hapless souls appearing when they least expect, after all the road was supposed to be designed to keep the roads clear of them, and accidents happen.

Take this simple example. Commuters alight from a bus in the busy business district of Delhi and make their way to their offices. At the first road crossing a proper break in the divider, a well marked zebra. At the next, you suddenly come across a fence. What do you do!? Women, those less athletically endowed, meekly seek the detour. Others vault over.

 fence breaking at janpath

 Fence break at Janpath, Cannaught place, New Delhi


Solution. Simple. Make a proper break in the divider (just like the one that exists only 200 yards away!) so that this popular pedestrian pathway becomes convenient. Avoid the chance of an accident or injury. Downside? Traffic will have to slow down for the pedestrians that cross. Which they have to in any case, since there are people jumping over the barrier.


Fence jumping at Connaught place, New Delhi


It was with some anguish then, that I caught this public awareness release in the newspapers the other day. A very similar situation. But the traffic police put the blame squarely on the pedestrians. Not once did they stop to think that perhaps if there was a proper break in the divider at this location – clearly it seems to be an important crossing point for pedestrians – then this whole sorry picture could be avoided. The flaw is in the road design which refuses to take into consideration the needs of the pedestrian that is at fault. Not the pedestrian. One of the Don'ts is a real stunner – “Don't walk on the road' – say the Police! Clearly they've never walked (or tried to) on our footpaths!

Delhi police and pedestrian safety

Delhi police and pedestrian safety


The fact of the matter is that the traffic police have very little exposure to these ideas, or the new thinking on sustainable transportation policy. Our own National Urban Transport Policy says this about the facilities for pedestrians (and cyclists) “Pedestrian safety is [also] adversely affected by the lack of safe crossing facilities at busy intersections . . .”. It cites badly designed facilities which do not take into account the limitations and problems faced by pedestrians as the cause and recommends that designs should be based on consultation with experts and the community that is expected to use them.

I think this community would have just suggested a small opening in the barrier.