As encroachments eat up footpaths, walkers are being pushed to the road. Will the Corporation be able to create space for them?

Last year, according to traffic police records, nearly 500 pedestrians died on the city's roads. The number of such fatal accidents is hardly surprising. With pavements fast disappearing from the face of Chennai, pedestrians are increasingly being forced to the road.

It is not as if the city didn't have footpaths — but today they have either been gobbled up by encroachers or made inaccessible by obstacles in the form of electricity junction boxes, parked vehicles, garbage bins, shops, signboards, wires. The walker has nowhere to go.

Tiruvottiyur High Road in north Chennai or Sardar Patel Road in south Chennai is a case in point. At any time of the day, one can see hapless pedestrians trying to make their way through buses, cars and two-wheelers, putting their lives at risk. So are the Mada Streets in Mylapore, where the pedestrian has to take measured steps in the narrow stretch left between shops spilling onto the road and parked vehicles.

In other cases, their very design renders them a waste. Sample this: around 10 in the morning, the busy Thirumalai Pillai Road in T. Nagar is brimming with vehicles of all sizes and colours. An elderly lady is about to step on the footpath, but it is a little high for her. She waits for a few seconds and asks a young man to help her ‘climb' it.

“My bank is not very far, but it is such a nightmare crossing this stretch. The pavements are too high for me. I need to climb up and down. Sometimes, I am forced to take an autorickshaw for such a short distance,” said S. Kamala, a pensioner living in the locality for over two decades. “If only the pavements were more convenient, I could comfortably walk both ways.”

Pavements in the city are unkind to all pedestrians, and senior citizens like her find them particularly inconvenient. With obstructions springing up for every few footsteps taken, Chennai's pavements are of little use to the pedestrians.

Until a few years ago, the ‘vanishing pavement syndrome' largely affected arterial roads, especially in commercial areas. But now, streets in residential pockets and smaller lanes have also succumbed to the problem.

Many neighbourhoods in the city are witnessing patches of green displace the footpaths. “The owners of this apartment just fenced the pavement and put some plants. It looks pretty, alright. But where do we walk,” asks V. Anand, an R.A. Puram resident.

With rows of vehicles parked along either sides of virtually every street, the gardens along road margins is the last thing they need, pedestrians note.

The Chennai Corporation has clearly failed in addressing the issue of encroachment along pavements — the average footpath in the city proves this.

It is one thing to address the issue of encroachments, and another to make provisions for pavements at the stage of planning, says A.T.B. Bose, co-convenor, North Chennai People's Rights Federation.

Having “given up” on the roads in the locality, he said that at least when new projects come up in the area, pedestrians should be taken into consideration. “Many of the new projects coming up in north Chennai are not pedestrian-friendly. For instance, the subway near Stanley hospital does not have adequate pavement space.”

Observing that policy makers design city roads only for those who own vehicles, Mr. Bose said: “In my student days, I remember how political parties would organise cycle rallies that began in north Madras. Then, there was space for cycles and pedestrians. Now it is impossible.”

According to Raj Cherubal of City Connect, an NGO working with the civic body to develop certain city roads, the Corporation is making an attempt now.

There can be no common template that can be used for all roads. Each road needs a studied approach to designing pavements. “Depending on the width, parking requirements and space for street vendors, a good pavement design can be evolved for each road. The Corporation should hire architects for the purpose,” Mr. Cherubal said.

Ideally, footpaths should be about 2 metres wide and six inches high, with provision for ramps. However, residents like disability rights activist Rajiv Rajan would say providing ramps for the sake of doing so does not really help.

Recently, he wrote to the Chennai Corporation citing the example of Turnbulls Road where, despite the presence of a ramp, rods erected on the pavement prevent easy movement of wheelchairs.

The Chennai Corporation would do well to remove encroachments along pavements, and simultaneously design pavements according to specific requirements of each road in the city. If it is concerned about the pedestrian, that is.

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012