India’s missing footpaths

Why are footpaths, a mandatory infrastructure, designed as an afterthought to vehicles and commercial establishments?

Updated - November 29, 2019 03:16 pm IST

Published - November 29, 2019 02:51 pm IST

Footpath encroachment by shops near Chadarghat, in Hyderabad

Footpath encroachment by shops near Chadarghat, in Hyderabad

A few years ago, irked by a prominent hotel on G.N. Chetty Road (and adjoining establishments) using footpaths along the arterial road as a private parking ground, I posted pictures on the Chennai City Traffic Police Facebook page. A couple of days later, all vehicles were cleared off the walkways and I received a comment on my post stating the issue was resolved. But it was only a matter of hours before the cars were back on the footpaths. A blatant disregard for laws has unfortunately made this a routine occurrence across the country.

Take a walk along any road in India – be it in a residential or commercial zone – and you will be surprised at how rare it is to find a footpath to walk on. We have many swanky (read pointless) flyovers, six-lane highways and state-of-the-art Metro services, but what about this mandatory infrastructure missing in our neighbourhoods?

Pedestrian trips account for a quarter to a third of all trips in many Indian cities, yet, footpaths are designed as an afterthought to vehicles and commercial establishments.

Motorists riding on a footpath at KR Puram in Bengaluru.

Motorists riding on a footpath at KR Puram in Bengaluru.

By the book

As per the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)’s reference guide — with key concepts from the Indian Road Congress’ (IRC) 2012 guidelines — footpaths in residential areas need to be wide enough (1.8 m) for two wheelchairs to pass each other. In commercial zones, they have to be even wider, i.e. 2.5 m. In addition, a height of 150 mm is ideal and the height of the kerb above the carriageway should not exceed 150 mm.

As for design, a footpath needs to be a flat walking surface (to prevent water stagnation), with guide tiles laid along its length to assist the visually impaired. Ideally, this walking zone should be clear of all obstructions including utility ducts, poles, electricity, water or telephone boxes, trees and signages. I suggest taking a walk in your neighbourhood to see how many roads have anything resembling a footpath, forget one that adheres to these parameters.

The IRC guidelines also highlight how, in busy areas such as bus stops and railway stations, the width of footpaths should be increased depending on pedestrian movement. However, they are almost non-existent at many bus stops (along many main roads in Chennai), leading to pedestrians walking along main roads. Prominent examples include Chamiers Road in Nandanam, T.T.K. Road in Alwarpet, G.N. Chetty Road in T. Nagar, LB Road in Adyar, among several others.

A snapshot from CIT Nagar, Saidapet in Chennai

A snapshot from CIT Nagar, Saidapet in Chennai

Closer home

What one notices instead are footpaths being encroached by petty shops and makeshift restaurants. On certain roads in areas such as Nandanam, Adyar and Nungambakkam, these structures are sometimes even broken by commercial establishments to make way for parking or signboards. In dense residential pockets of R.A. Puram, Egmore, T. Nagar and Thiruvanmiyur, residents have taken control of most pedestrian pathways and converted them into private parking and/or garden spaces.

Chennai’s Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) policy — formulated in 2014 — promised that at least 80% of the city’s streets would have footpaths by 2018. It’s been a year since this deadline has passed, but not much has changed on the ground. We’ve seen footpaths in Egmore redesigned and more recently, the launch of the pedestrian plaza in T. Nagar, but motorists continue to ride their vehicles on these elevated footpaths.

The NMT policy stated the Corporation of Chennai (COC) would create a Chennai Street Design Manual, design footpaths where there are none and ‘pursue all means to free up space for segregated footpaths (such as removing vehicle parking) and prioritise street amenities (furniture, landscaping, trees, etc.) over vehicle parking’.

Unfortunately, COC’s ‘zero tolerance approach for managing encroachments on footpaths’ is a far cry from reality. Eateries spring up every other day and people take public spaces for granted, using the walkways as their personal storage space. If only residents took ownership of their neighbourhoods and ensured such spaces were kept encroachment-free and put to their intended use.

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