The single biggest activity promoting good health is walking, but Chennai is notorious for its hostility to walkers.

Governments investing tax money of citizens should naturally consider whether their projects benefit the maximum number of people. At the very least, they should refrain from spending money in a way that adds to the misery of the population.

Chennai’s administrators are colossal failures in this regard. To them, a good city is measured by ever wider roads, no footpaths, and constantly flowing vehicular traffic — and they will not hesitate to spend staggering amounts to ensure that. Our civic leaders should rethink their unintelligent policy approaches for a variety of reasons. Here are some compelling ones.

There is a strong connection between the nature of the city — or built environment — and public health. The single biggest, near-universal activity that promotes good health is walking, but Chennai is now globally notorious for its hostility towards walkers — the Union ministry of urban development notes that the city has the worst ‘walkabililty index’ among comparable centres in the country, with non-existent or unusable footpaths.

How badly Chennai is faring can be assessed from the gap between official standards for road infrastructure, and that followed by agencies such as the Corporation of Chennai. Roads must have foothpaths — a minimum of 1.8 metres wide — on both sides, with non-mountable kerbs. That desirable standard was identified not long ago by a chief engineer of the Union ministry of road transport and highways at a national meeting on pedestrian safety.

A somewhat outdated standard of the Indian Roads Congress recommends, among other things, that footpaths on both sides must be at least 1.5 metres wide, with even wider footpaths at bus stops. Those who have lived in Chennai for long, including in the 1980s when we became a ‘car nation’, would remember such footpaths along Anna Road and other places. The city then fell prey to ‘road widening’, a walkers’ scourge that continues.

To return to public health, there is a clear link between walking and prevention of chronic diseases (diabetes and hypertension are prominent here). A study of users of a light railway system in the United States found that the risk of a higher Body Mass Index and obesity was reduced for those who walked regularly to the railway. Earlier studies have found similar correlations. Now that we will have a metro rail and already use other railways and buses, would it not help to have more walkability?

The city with the worst walkability score shows little understanding of universal design — the principle which says making things better for everyone makes them better for the disabled too. If our leaders can therefore unlearn their faulty policies and improve walking infrastructure, the city can help tens of thousands of disabled people — including the growing population of those with age-related disabilities. Did you know, for example, that every year, at least 3,500 persons in Chennai undergo knee replacement for relief from arthritic pain? These people need smooth footpaths to walk, as do all of us. So when spending precious public funds, our car-borne, treadmill-loving policymakers should put walkers first.


It’s time for street view 2.0September 10, 2012

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