Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating

Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating

by Transport Niti - Mar 20, 2015 12:30 PM +05:30 IST
Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating

How Chennai is pioneering creating urban spaces suiting all the modes of transport

Natural resources are scarce and no well-meaning citizen would support the use of discretionary powers to benefit a preferred set of people. After all, that is exactly what happened in the 2G spectrum and coal allocation scams.  People with too much discretionary powers diverting precious national resources towards a set of people they preferred. For a moment, let’s leave aside the allegations of kickbacks. Would anyone have supported A Raja giving spectrum to the DB group at throwaway prices even if we knew for sure that the latter didn’t give kickbacks for the deal?

Likewise, would anyone support former PM Manmohan Singh’s coal allocations even if no money ever changed hands? The obvious answer is no.

People with power should not be discriminating while distributing national resources, be it spectrum, coal mines, or be it land for roads.

Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating
Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating

According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Urban Development in 2008, only 20% of trips are undertaken by personal modes of transport in Indian cities with populations of over 80 lakh. The remaining 80% are undertaken by public transport, walking, cycling, and intermediate modes of public transportation (IPT) such as auto-rickshaws, taxis and cycle-rickshaws. The mode share of personal vehicles in three of the four ‘metros’ is less than 20%, Chennai being the outlier in that group with a 30% personal vehicle mode share. Bangalore and Hyderabad, both Tier 1 cities, also have personal vehicle mode shares of under 30%. If we were to now superimpose investments on urban road projects on the same chart, we’d find that an overwhelmingly large proportion of investments have been cornered by projects aimed at helping personal modes of transport (the 30% crowd). For a country where car users are a minority, it is hugely ironical that pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, the majority, often end up getting the short end of the stick in getting their mobility needs addressed probably because they aren’t vocal enough.

Irony keeps coming under the car in India like it did in Delhi when car users filed a lawsuit against the Delhi BRT. Barely had irony recovered from this accident that Kolkata decided to ban cycles (11% mode share) on its roads to ‘ease congestion’, a euphemism for giving undue advantage to car users (8% mode share).

If we were to look around us, we’d be hard pressed to find footpaths and cycle tracks. It is because over the years, our cities have used discretionary powers to benefit their preferred group, i.e., automobile users solely because the latter are more vocal about their needs.

Even roads that have footpaths prove their existence merely as a technicality such as the one on the right. If you’re a pedestrian though, a discontinuous footpath, even if it is paved, is as uncomfortable and frustrating as a discontinuous road is for vehicle users.

Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating

If you were a commuter in this area shown in the photo and were asked to make a decision on your choice of travel mode, what would you choose, being a pedestrian or being in your vehicle? It is a no brainer isn’t it? If we were to repeat this exercise for every commuter in the same area, we’d find that a large majority of commuters would be more inclined towards using private vehicles and hence would contribute towards increasing the load on our already overburdened roads.

When faced with such situations, our cities have either taken out or reduced the widths of footpaths to widen roads as part of their vehicle-oriented projects.  True to their nature, vehicle oriented projects have done what they invariably do, nudge people to move away from City centers, a phenomenon known as urban sprawl. Remember the overzealous builder trying to sell his new project 20 km from the main city by talking about that famed 80m DP road that’s about to come up in the area? Rings a bell?

This has been happening across all our big cities, people are spreading out and it is evident from the same MoUD study.

The average trip lengths in our cities has been increasing, an indication that we’re driving more and longer than before. Between 1994 and 2007, the average trip length in Tier I cities increased by 30% and is expected to increase by approximately 43% between 2011 and 2031.

Longer trip lengths have an inverse relationship with walking and cycling, and a direct relation with congestion.  They create a vicious cycle of more investments in vehicle-centric projects and reduction in walk and cycle trips. This is primarily why we find our cities clogged today despite having much wider roads than what we had a decade ago. More widening is akin to loosening our belts to cure obesity.    

Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating

But there is growing hope, based on recent trends, that our cities are making the right moves. Several municipalities and metropolitan development authorities are increasingly taking a more progressive approach while allocating valuable tax rupees on urban infrastructure projects. Some of the credit for this change must go to India’s National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) which unequivocally makes it clear that transportation projects should take into account the needs of all modes and all users, not just personal vehicles as has been the practice so far.

The underlying principle for the NUTP is that transportation corridors should be designed to move people, not cars, and in the most efficient and comfortable manner. 

The Corporation of Chennai (CoC) has taken a lead in this regard and it should be lauded for adopting a policy aimed at creating pedestrian and cyclist friendly infrastructure for its citizens. The policy document states that the CoC aims to make Chennai: 

“a city with a general sense of well-being through the development of quality and dignifiedenvironment where people are encouraged to walk and cycle; equitable allocation of public space and infrastructure; and access to opportunities and mobility for all residents”. (emphasis mine). 

What CoC aims to do is ensure that its roads follow the policy popularly known as ‘Complete Streets’. As the name suggests, Complete Streets are those that are designed to serve all user groups, including people with disabilities, pedestrians, cyclists, public transport, and vehicular traffic. The overall objective of the ‘Complete Streets’ policy, which is gradually becoming a global movement of sorts, is to provide equitable mobility for all and eliminate traditional discrimination against certain user groups.   

In its policy document, the CoC has set itself some targets against which it will measure itself going forward. These targets include

  1. Increasing the mode share of pedestrians and cyclists from 30% in 2007 to 40%;
  2. Reducing the number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities to 0 per year, popularly known as the ‘Vision Zero’ and adopted by several public agencies around the world;
  3. Ensuring that 80% of streets have footpaths;
  4. Ensuring that 80% of streets with widths of 30m of more have unobstructed and continuous cycle tracks;
  5. Increasing the mode share of public transport from 30% in 2007 to 60%; and
  6. Reducing vehicle kilometres travelled by personal modes of transport, i.e., reduce trip lengths and mode share of personal modes of transport.

 To achieve these targets, the CoC has outlined a set of proven strategies in its policy document. These include, among other things, following the ‘Complete Streets’ design policy for all its road projects, and favouring at-grade pedestrian facilities instead of overhead crossings and pedestrian subways. It also proposes to implement BRT corridors with dedicated bus lanes, create more ‘eyes on the street’ by setting up dedicated vending spaces along pedestrian routes, and creation of pedestrian zones throughout the city.

Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating
Chennai’s Complete Streets: An Idea Worth Emulating

The best part of this initiative is the creation of a ‘Chennai Street Design Manual’. By creating this document, the CoC has perhaps become the first municipal body in India to have its own set of design standards and guidelines, something that has been woefully missing in Indian cities.

The result of this policy can now be seen on ground with the completion of several revitalisation projects such as, but not limited to, Halls Road, Police Commissioner’s Office Road, Pantheon Road, and MG Road.  It is indeed heartening to see an Indian municipal corporation ‘walking’ the talk, hope others follow suit.   

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