Children use the city’s streets in very many ways. They use the space to roll along an old tyre, dash through the alleyways on a cycle en route to school, or to get together as a group to play.
Over five lakh children hit the road every morning just on the way to school. Many of them either walk or cycle. Being a group with such overwhelming numbers, how inclusive and child-friendly are the city’s roads?
On an average, there have been 300 accidents involving a child under 14, every year, for the past five years. “Schools themselves are located in areas that are vulnerable to accidents in many cases,” says V.Thamizh Arasan, Head of Transportation Engineering Division, IIT-Madras. “Criteria such as road connectivity and safety of access are never taken into account while giving licences. Many private schools start inside a house and expand,” he says.
Pedestrian access is a major problem throughout the city and it becomes acute in school zones, say experts. Individual drop-off and pick-up of students and the associated traffic chaos is a direct consequence.
Mr.Arasan suggests measures such as child-friendly zebra crossings, increased penalty for traffic violations that result in the injury of a pedestrian or a cyclist, and exclusive cycle lanes in the vicinity of schools.
However, Sanjay Arora, Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic), said that school zones are not the actual problem, as many of the accidents involving children happen elsewhere. “If you look at the time correlation, out of the 300 accidents, many happen much after the school leaving hour. But, we are willing to look into the feasibility of child-friendly zebra crossings and any other suggestions to improve safety,” he says.
For R.Najeem Qureshi, a Class XI student who covers 22-km from Palavakkam to Mint on his way to school every day, travel is traumatic. “Buses do not stop because they are already overcrowded. Cycling is unsafe. So I wait, take a bus from Palavakkam to Parry’s, and then take another bus to Mint.” he says.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says that though a majority of the world’s children live in urban areas, many are threatened by traffic, violence and pollution. It identifies a ‘child-friendly city’ to be one in which he/she can walk safely in the streets, on their own; meet friends and play.
City planners have largely forgotten about children while designing public spaces, says Mr.Arasan. “Lack of adequate open spaces or play area for children, even in well-designed residential layouts, is an example. Many are forced to play on the road and get injured.”
Kiran Bir Sethi of the Ahmedabad-based aProCh (A Protagonist in every Child), says that there is a lot to worry about, from a lack of quiet, traffic-free zones in our cities to public transport systems that are not child sensitive.
“But a start has to be made somewhere. In Ahmedabad, the city tried to open its hearts and minds to its children by closing down the busiest road (CG Road), five times a year, and allowing the children to come and play. It has been going on for three years and now it is part of the city’s ethos. When a city gives to the children, in the future, the children will give back to the city,” she says.