Home is where the heart can roam freely

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We build cities and communities to be and feel more connected to one another. Can you imagine the irony if roads and vehicles, which are supposed to bridge physical gaps, were to tear our communities apart emotionally?

Our urban spaces need to strike a healthy balance between walkability and vehicularisation.

Most afternoons, my 89-year old grandfather walks from his house in East Bangalore to a nearby electrical store. The shopkeeper sets out a plastic stool for him, where he sits for around half an hour, watching the busy main road and sometimes talking to the shopkeeper or customers who come in. On other days, he walks to the medical shop at the end of the street — he has been visiting it for decades and knows personally the two or three generations of chemists who run the store — to talk about his ailments and the ‘latest’ medicines.

These activities echo a neighbourhood rhythm of a different era, one where one could chat at local shops, where an errand often became a little social engagement, and where the movement of vehicles didn’t dictate your outings. But this is rapidly changing — today, if my grandfather wishes to have his little social engagements, any activity that involves crossing the main road is no longer an option. This road was recently connected to a ‘flyover’ that leads to an arterial ‘ring road’, transforming the street from just another busy road to a key transport corridor for through traffic connecting different parts of the city.

A key U.S.-based study in the 1980s coined the terms ‘community severance’ or ‘barrier effect’ to describe the way in which road infrastructure, while helping create some connections, can inhibit other connections by creating a barrier between people and their needs and activities.

The study, by Donald Appleyard and Mark Lintell, explored three streets in San Francisco to study how traffic volumes influenced the residents’ activities and liveability perceptions. The barrier effect was found to disrupt interpersonal connections among residents and lead to other divisive effects, such as fewer trips made on foot owing to the poor quality of the environment and increased walking time. It was also found to affect elderly people and young children, who usually face more restrictions on independent mobility.

Today, this phenomenon is extremely common across most Indian cities and neighbourhoods, like, for instance, in Bengaluru, where the lanes of houses on either side of this main street (which now has not only shops and offices but even a shopping mall) no longer feel part of the same space. Residents, small shops and their connections that have existed for decades are now separated into different worlds because of the wide chasm of traffic. Today, my grandfather no longer considers going to the grocery store or the temple just across this road barely 200 metres from his house, as there is no pedestrian crossing, and getting to the other side involves standing on a narrow median that can give anyone a mild jolt in the gut every time a bus whizzes past less than a foot away.

Even as roads are widened and flyovers are built in the (mostly false) hope of reducing traffic jams and linking different parts of the city, smaller neighbourhood streets are becoming less and less accessible. And even as more people move to the formerly distant parts of the city, older neighbourhoods within the city that thrived on such local connections are undergoing a transformation, where reduced walkability changes the way the neighbourhood is perceived.

While the presence of physical walking infrastructure like footpaths and pedestrian crossings is key to this, in many Indian cities with multi-use streets, it is not only the presence of footpaths that determines whether you choose to walk but also the volume of traffic.

  ‘A neighbourhood street in Bengaluru with low traffic volumes’ is rare enough to nearly be an oxymoron.

In Appleyard and Lintel’s study, a ‘heavy street’ with high traffic was considered one with 900 vehicles per hour. The Silk Board junction in Bengaluru, one of the city’s “deadliest” intersections, is estimated to have had a staggering 12,000 vehicles plying on it every hour, in 2016. The number of vehicles in Bengaluru is presently estimated to be over 75 lakh and increasing as you read this (4,000 vehicles are estimated to be added to the city every day).

In 2008, 17 deaths and 36 injuries were reported to have occured on the road leading to the Bengaluru International Airport in the first five weeks after its inauguration, indicating that this phenomenon in India has not just reduced social interaction and walkability, but has serious consequences in the form of pedestrian accidents and fatalities. The report also discusses the case of a 58-year old woman who has sold fruits by the side of this road for 18 years and now talks about the other side as if it were “a different town”.

These very real as well as perceived effects of not being able to cross the street, alienating locals from spaces they once perceived as navigable, have a huge impact on independent mobility, especially among the elderly. In sharp contrast with the rhythm of this old neighbourhood, a friend tells me about an elderly couple who live in an apartment along the IT corridor of Chennai — there are no shops nearby and no walkable pavements on the expressway (or perhaps the road feels unwalkable despite pavements) — that depends largely on online shopping, even for things as ordinary as safety pins and needles.

 

Crossing a street with undisciplined traffic and no stops at pedestrian crossings can virtually cut off the other side of the street for many users.

In this manner, the phenomenon changes the very way people interact with the street and the city, a relationship which has always been strong in Indian neighbourhoods wherein connection between the house and the street has been a key characteristic. Through windows, verandahs, balconies, compound walls and gates, a street interface has always been essential, especially important for people who don’t go out to work.

 

 

The street interface in India has always been reached through windows, balconies or gates. It has been heavily altered by traffic and transport corridors.

Standing at the gate and sharing a conversation with the neighbour or sitting at the electrical shop — situations that are straight out of old novels — remain an integral part of everyday life for my grandfather, but these practices are rapidly vanishing and appear to be an inevitable cause of our expanding cities.

Addressing these problems through better planning is essential, rather than carrying out stop-gap solutions like private walking paths inside apartments or using home delivery systems, that do not address the root cause — that the city has to be able to accommodate and prioritise people on foot, rather than focussing only on moving vehicles, a fact that transport planners and some policies have been trying to advocate. Streets that accommodate and encourage walkers, through usable footpaths and regularly-spaced pedestrian crossings, are essential to a liveable and healthy neighbourhood, even if it means slower vehicular flow. The rampant parking of vehicles on footpaths also has to be addressed through strict enforcement.

 

 

Parking and obstructions footpaths is a huge deterrant to walkability

 

Footbridges, which are widely proposed as an answer, have been widely found to be ineffective for various reasons. They are a far-from-helpful solution that continues to keep pedestrians away from the actual streets. The solution has, instead, to come from reallocating space on the street to accommodate these users, who have been left out from planning solutions, and understanding that local rhythms and walkability of neighbourhoods are also essential to making a city liveable.

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