From public health to climate change, walking is high on the list of solutions to a variety of issues. Most people, however, walk for a very basic reason — it is the first and last part of their commute that involves a bus, train or autorickshaw. Yet, there is little that the official agencies have done to make it easier for such ‘green’ commuters.
Take the case of the iconic transport terminal of the city — Chennai Central. At some point, the government spent significant amounts of money to put up high-quality footpaths, including a tactile strip to help the blind pedestrian along EVR Periyar High Road. The results were not exceptional.
Today, thousands of commuters who throng the area to change suburban trains, buses or simply access nearby facilities including the premier government general hospital, apart from passengers using Central station, have no worthwhile pedestrian facility. About 500 metres of footpath from the Stanley viaduct towards Park station is broken and filthy, while many obstacles surround the subway serving the station.
Neither the Southern Railway, nor the civic authorities including the Corporation protected the pedestrian passage under the Stanley viaduct between EVR Periyar High Road and the MRTS Park Town station. It became an open toilet serving the Cooum slums, and the response of the departments was to wall off the pathway, rather than improve and protect it, with good alternatives for slum sanitation. As a result, pedestrians must walk along the Stanley viaduct, and enter the station.
So narrow is this passage on the viaduct that scores of helpless people walk in procession at peak hour on the road, towards Central. It is important to remember that this is a key interchange of the future when people will move between Central station, Park station, Park Town MRTS station, the bus stops outside GH, and of course, the new Metro station. Thousands of the 7.74 lakh trips that Chennai Metro Rail Limited forecasts for 2016 on its service will conclude or originate here. Is there a proper walking plan for Central, or for Egmore for that matter?
Today, a staggering 49 lakh plus pedestrian trips are made every day by bus commuters, going by the data of the Metropolitan Transport Corporation. Yet, the bus termini of the MTC are pedestrian-unfriendly in normal times, and unapproachable when it rains.
It would take only small investments to improve the approaches and interiors of the bus termini — whether it is choked T. Nagar, or remote Iyyappanthangal and Ambattur. The story is not very different when it comes to approaches to suburban railway stations in the city. The approaches are broken, crowded with obstacles, dark at night and islanded when it rains even for five minutes.
Thus, in spite of the existence of a Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, with the State transport minister as chairman and the chief secretary as vice-chairman, there is no hurry to improve walkability even in the vicinity of transport termini.
So is there a defined area around a transport terminus where pedestrian traffic is particularly important? International transport research calculates that as a radius of 400 metres. But as the author of the book ‘Human Transit’, Jarrett Walker points out, the actual area may be less because of the difference between a standard figure (the air distance) and actual conditions on the ground, affecting walkability.
In Chennai, transport planners have not shared their findings with pedestrians, but CMRL has been saying in public events that the ‘area of influence’ of a station for walkers — the biggest group of users — is 500 metres. That would mean, for instance, a walking path free of obstacles and aesthetically appealing, from parts of T. Nagar to the Teynampet Metro station, and from much of Ashok Nagar to the Metro station serving that area.
Incidentally, Mr. Walker, who has been a pedestrian in India, recently took note of The Hindu’s Right to Walk campaign and calls the walker’s environment in the country “brutal.”
Is achieving walkability a difficult goal? It would appear so in the context of people walking to bus termini, train stations and so on, because of the conflicts involved in apportioning public pathways for different uses. Yet, the real issue is the rising subsidy given to motorists by carving up the right of way, and depriving other classes of users of their fair share.