Revolutionary road: Ambitious plans afoot across the country to transform its roads and streets

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September 20, 2020 2:00 AM

There are ambitious plans afoot across the country’s major metros to transform and beautify its roads and streets on a par with those in European cities. But how much of it is achievable in India, keeping in mind last-mile connectivity and on-ground issues?

Research points to the need for increased use of public transport and NMVs, as pollution and congestion emanating from frequent private vehicle usage is dangerous.Research points to the need for increased use of public transport and NMVs, as pollution and congestion emanating from frequent private vehicle usage is dangerous.

In August, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal announced a mega plan to redesign 500 km of 100-ft-wide roads (seven roads) in the capital to make the aesthetics of the stretches on a par with those in European cities and along the lines of the redesign plans for Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. “It is our dream that Delhi looks like other global capital cities… if the roads are beautiful and congestion-free, a different image of India would be presented to the world,” he said.

The redesign will reduce bottlenecks, increase green cover, widen footpaths (10 ft for pedestrians, keeping in mind convenience of the physically handicapped), allocate more planned spaces for vehicles (especially non-motorised vehicles) and make way for more roadside landscape and rainwater harvesting structures. All this to ease congestion, improve the city’s aesthetics and allow people—particularly those on foot and bicycles—to travel safely.

The European model of street design in countries like the Netherlands has certainly become a template for inclusive streets with focus on people and not just cars. Major city administrations have shifted away from the dominance of cars on roads and towards pedestrianisation, or human scaled city development. The UK’s central Cardiff is a car-free zone. In London, 114 low-traffic neighbourhoods are in the works to expand spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. Cities like Copenhagen, Oslo, Norway and Madrid are also working to create larger car-free zones. Dubai, too, plans to become a friendlier place for cyclists.

It’s clear that a diverse transportation system and integrated design are important for an inclusive street, but how much of this is achievable in India, keeping in mind last-mile connectivity and space structure? “It demands a paradigm policy shift from car-centric planning to people-centric design, which prioritises footpaths, cycle lanes, vending zones, public utilities. Decades of neglect has not only turned most streets into a traffic mess and pedestrian nightmare, but also adversely affected the environment, public health, law and order,” says Delhi-based Nitin Panigrahi, deputy general manager (project and administration), Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC), which is spearheading the redevelopment project of Chandni Chowk.

Over the years, the Mughal-era bazaar has turned into a highly chaotic commercial ground where two-wheelers, cars, cycle rickshaws and hand carts compete for right of way with pedestrians. Numerous court orders and drives against encroachments and illegal constructions in the past failed to turn around Chandni Chowk. In 2018, however, the plan for a pedestrian-oriented street design was approved, which includes shifting of public facilities, wide pavements and adequate space for pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles (NMVs). The project, which aims to enhance visitor experience while showcasing the heritage and culture of Chandni Chowk, is slated to be completed in November this year.

Safety & beauty
Most Indian roads fail to fit the European model. Characterised by non-segregated vehicle lanes, narrow/encroached footpaths, missing sidewalks, inappropriate curb height and infrequent road crossings, road design in India often ignores pedestrians. While redesigning, it is important to focus on the safety factor, especially at intersections where pedestrians and cyclists are the most vulnerable.

In 2017, research organisation World Resources Institute (WRI) India partnered with Mumbai Traffic Police and Mumbai Municipal Corporation to audit and improve high-risk intersections across the city such as the HP Petrol Pump intersection in Bandra. Part of Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the project’s aim was to reduce the nearly 500 road fatalities every year in the city, more than 30% of which occur at intersections.

After a successful trial—using traffic barricades, cones and paint—was conducted to test the design, the intersection saw streamlined traffic movement, accessible pedestrian islands, reduced size of junction and removal of unnecessary slip lanes. The changes have since been made permanent. Today, over 70,000 vehicles and nearly 50,000 pedestrians use the remodelled, safer intersection every day. “While India accounts for only 2% of global motor vehicles, it contributes over 12% of global road traffic deaths. Around 1.5 lakh people lose their lives on India’s roads every year,” says Delhi-based Amit Bhatt, executive director, Integrated Transport Sustainable Cities, WRI India. “Street designing requires a revolution… it should be human-centric, contextual, inclusive and practical in its design approach,” he says.

Bhatt cites the example of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, which invited architects and urban designers in 2018 to participate in the Mumbai Street Lab project. The ongoing project will facilitate the transformation of five streets—SV Road, Napean Sea Road, Vikhroli Park Site Road No.17, Maulana Shaukat Ali Road and Rajaram Mohan Roy Road—in Mumbai with the creative expertise of designers.

A street redesign is not just about beautification, but also about creating safe and convenient streets for people, says Chennai-based Shreya Gadepalli, who leads the South Asia Programme of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), an organisation that has offered several interventions in sustainable transport in India. In Chennai and Pune, the ITDP has developed an extensive network of complete streets to enhance accessibility and mobility.

“Over the last two decades, transport planning in India has primarily focused on improving conditions for private automobiles at the expense of safe footpaths and cycling facilities. Walking, cycling or public transport are green and affordable means of transport to ensure sustainable growth. Streets that have safe and attractive footpaths and cycle tracks, frequent pedestrian crossings or regulated on-street parking must be accessible to everyone,” says Gadepalli.

Take the case of Noida, which was made ‘cycling-friendly’ in 2016 by then CM Akhilesh Yadav, who said the city ‘would rival the international cycling tracks of Europe’. A sprawling 65-km network of cycling track in the city is now a stretch of poor maintenance, encroachment and administrative apathy. Trees and poles in the middle of the track, structural defects like uneven surfaces, etc, make the tracks inaccessible to cyclists and pedestrians. Similarly, the cycle track of Mehrauli-Gurugram Road is inaccessible for cyclists because of the interlocking tiles, which make it inconvenient to ride. Plus, the two sides of the 8- to 10-ft-wide pavement are encroached or blocked with debris or garbage.

Around 20 years back, activities like cycling and walking were natural to Indians, but these became obsolete over time. Post-Covid-19, though, the focus is again shifting to pedestrians and cyclists. The safety issue, however, remains. Delhi-based environmentalist Vimlendu Jha, executive director, Swechha, a leading environment NGO, says that about 91% of Delhi’s livelihood cyclists (city workers whose primary mode of transport is cycle) use the vehicle every day to commute. But are our roads designed for safe walking and cycling? “For almost 11 lakh cyclists in Delhi, there is just 100 km of track. Delhi air pollution can’t be solved by traditional means… bicycle infrastructure, last-mile connectivity are musts besides strengthening policies to protect pedestrians and the right to walk or cycle,” says Jha.

Design metrics
For the ITDP’s Gadepalli, a good street design ensures that there is no haphazard parking. “There is no reason for car users to get parking for free. In European cities like Amsterdam and Paris, transport planning focuses on people to create a seamless ecosystem of walking, cycling and public transport,” she says, adding that JM Road and DP Road in Pune, and the T Nagar pedestrian plaza in Chennai are apt examples of walking facilities and public spaces. The footpaths are wide and continuous, so users don’t have to climb up and down. Plus, these are shaded by trees and have places for people to sit.

In comparison, many wide roads in Delhi randomly turn narrow, creating bottlenecks and heavy traffic, especially during rains. “High street curves, bottlenecks can be avoided if we have an organised lane system, which increases the efficiency of the existing space on road. A uniform road width makes it less congested and increases capacity. One such example is the Barapullah elevated corridor—Delhi’s first elevated road—from Sarai Kale Khan to AIIMS, which proved to be a vital link between east, central and south Delhi, and reduced travel time to just 10-15 minutes. It has nothing except a main carriageway with a uniform width (one lane is about 3 m, a total of 9.5 m),” explains Sarvagya Srivastava, former engineer-in-chief at Public Works Department, Delhi. Srivastava has been closely associated with significant infrastructure projects like DMRC and redevelopment of road infrastructure in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games besides BRT corridor, Bypass road, Barapullah elevated corridor, etc. “Engineering (infrastructure), enforcement and education are the three components of road design,” he says.

Minor variations in public facilities help, say experts. “An underpass created with a slight depression or a foot-over bridge help pedestrians cross traffic-heavy roads. Shops and facilities built inside the underpass leave the main carriageway clean and safe for people,” says Srivastava, who is currently associated with the Agra-Gorakhpur-Kanpur Metro Rail project. “A skywalk is a solution to minimise road disturbance and the learning can be implemented in the UP Metro project,” he says.

Another example of a city layout with an integrated system of roads and traffic circulation is Chandigarh. The city, planned by French architect Le Corbusier, is known for its best experiments in urban planning and modern architecture. While planning it, in fact, Corbusier deliberated on the problems faced by European cities after the industrial revolution. In his design, the architect intended to prevent traffic congestion and pollution caused by the growth of the private motor car. The layout of the city, with its integrated system of seven roads, is designed to ensure efficient traffic circulation referred to as the ‘7Vs’. The city’s vertical roads run north-east/south-west (the Paths), while the horizontal roads run north-west/south-west (the Margs). They intersect at right angles, forming a grid or network for movement. This arrangement ensures that residential areas are segregated from the noise and pollution of traffic. Tree plantation and landscaping are also integral parts of the city’s Master Plan.

Sustainable solutions
Research points to the need for increased use of public transport and NMVs, as pollution and congestion emanating from frequent private vehicle usage is dangerous. In Bengaluru, streets conform to scientific understanding of urban mobility principles like ‘pedestrian first’, feels Bengaluru-based Srinivas Alavilli, head, civic participation, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a citizen participation NGO. “Bengaluru has a severe traffic problem, as we prioritised flyovers over public transport all these years. If more flyovers are built, it will lead to more cars. If buses have dedicated lanes and go faster, people will choose buses rather than private transport,” says Alavilli.

In 2018, the Pune Municipal Corporation heralded a new era of travel demand management by regulating on-street parking. For this, the city adopted the Pune Parking Policy that approved a fee for on-street parking to be adjusted based on demand levels—the higher the demand, the higher the price. In Ranchi, too, a pilot parking management project on the arterial MG Road stretch has led to a twelve-fold increase in parking revenue. Not surprisingly, the state of Jharkhand, spurred by the revenue spike in its capital’s pilot parking management project, has invested in efforts to regulate parking through a state-wide policy. Chennai is also implementing an IT-enabled parking management system to manage motor vehicle parking. In the first phase, which will cover 12,000 parking spaces, the city stands to gain over `550 million per year in revenue—a whopping 110 times increase from what it earned in the past.

“The problems of unorganised on-street parking and invasion of footpaths by parked cars are a common sight in most Indian cities. This oversight in parking management hinders pedestrian movement, feeds into the prevalent inequality of access to urban spaces and drains the government coffers of revenue,” says Gadepalli of ITDP, which supports the Smart Cities Mission of India Cycles4Change Challenge with the ministry of housing and urban affairs. Launched in June, it aims to inspire a nation-wide transformation, creating 10,000 km of attractive cycling infrastructure. Several studies conducted by the ITDP on streets have shown a 50-200% growth in usage of these streets.

“In the absence of inclusive public streets, citizens can’t be blamed for embracing motorised transportation for even short trips to neighbourhood places. We need to assure people about first mile convenience to feel safe to step outside in the street. A continued network of footpaths and cycle/lanes are the pre-requisites to make public transportation the preferred mode,” says Panigrahi, adding, “In Chandni Chowk, we took an integrated approach, keeping in mind all stakeholders, authorities, local residents, traders, homeless and the poor. Public support for the past two years demonstrated that no one hates wider footpaths, safe cycle lanes or clean air. The new infrastructure will make people shift from car to public transport, help minimise pollution and unnecessary congestion,” he adds.

The construction in Chandni Chowk has helped improve the air quality index that used to be 500+ pre-construction in December 2018, and the market witnessed a bumper sale last year during the construction, says Sanjay Bhargava, president, Chandni Chowk Trader Association, and a fabric trader. “As compared to 2018, the sale in 2019 didn’t go down due to the construction… rather it increased to 60% as compared to 40% sales in March 2018,” says Bhargava.

Surface-level aesthetics have been taken care of keeping in mind the heritage of Shahjahanabad, says Vidya Tongbram, architect, Pradeep Sachdeva Design Associates, the consultant architect for Chandni Chowk. “Subsurface utilities such as water lines, electrical (lines) and communications have been planned and coordinated well, so that they work efficiently,” says Tongbram.

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