In the past few years, a dangerous kind of classism has emerged on the Indian roads. While pedestrians form a good percentage of the road traffic, they are an oppressed lot. They are forced to bear the brunt of safety inadequacies of our traffic management system, and also tolerate the growing dominance of the motor-vehicle users. This phenomenon, a bi-product of rapid motorization, is being allowed, if not endorsed, equally by the common public and the decision makers in exchange for meeting the demands of urbanization and economic growth.
The usefulness of motorization in the scope of national development is undebatable. However, it is very important to not evade the discussion on the negative consequences of the kind of rampant vehicular growth that India has seen in the last few decades. As stated in a report on road accidents published by PRS Legislative Research, “Since 2000, while road network in the country has grown by 39%, the number of registered vehicles has grown by about 158%.” This statistic paints an apt picture of the transport environment of every burgeoning Indian city– crowded streets, over-burdened infrastructure, and chaos. Such asymmetrical growth is affecting pedestrians disproportionately. Independent estimates, contrary to national statistical reports, indicate that close to 60% of road fatalities involve vulnerable road users– with pedestrians alone contributing to almost 35% of total fatalities.
It is often hypothesized that motorized users inherently have higher authority over the road than the non-motorized users mainly because of our taxing system. While road tax is levied on motor vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists have access to the roads without having to pay anything. This argument is overly flawed because taxes in India are not ring-fenced; moreover, the road tax that is collected is insufficient to independently support road development and maintenance. As per budget estimates released by Ministry of Finance for the financial year 2014-2015, the total “Tax on Vehicles” collected is a mere 34% of the total capital and revenue expenditure on roads and bridges. Roads burden the general tax revenue, hence, non-motorized users are still indirectly taxed for the roads that they are using, while they cause negligible wear and tear to the roads.
According to studies conducted by the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) in 30 cities, walk trips contributed to an average of 30% of the total trips. Despite a significant portion of the population still relying on walking for transportation, a general embracement of ’speed’ has led to the proliferation of vehicle-centric road design characterized by wide roads with narrow footpaths, flyovers, and expressways. Elevated pedestrian crossings and subways are not only a poor substitute for design fallacies but also a demonstration of the general apathy towards pedestrians. In a frantic need to accommodate the vehicular growth and congestion, we have created poor alternatives that grossly undermine pedestrian rights on the road. Although various recent urban transport schemes and policies such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNURM) and National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) have promised design changes catering to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, the implementation has been disappointingly low.
An equally powerful trend that most urban development arguments are neglecting is that this is as much an attitudinal problem as it is an infrastructural one. From road user behavior to the way our enforcement functions, there is a risky perception problem that hides behind the bigger issues of policy and infrastructure. Vehicles not stopping for pedestrians, incessant honking to rush pedestrians off the carriageway, irresponsible driving, and close calls are an everyday affair, to the extent that one hardly finds it objectionable. Such absence of sensitivity and thus lack of resistance further encourage the prejudice of motorists. These defective mechanisms feed off each other and evolve into a mainstream road culture that is grossly faulty and hard to uproot.
Enforcement is heavily skewed towards seatbelt and helmet usage, which only adds to the troubles. While behaviors such as not stopping for pedestrians and speeding at intersections potentially puts others at risk and amount to graver violations than not wearing protective gear, they are rarely checked. For example, out of the 25 lakh violations caught by Bangalore Traffic Police in the first three months of 2017, only about 12,000 are attributable to reasons (footpath parking and riding on the footpath) directly related to violation of pedestrian rights, whereas over 10 lakh are attributable to helmet usage. Despite the legal provisions in Central Motor Vehicles Rules 1989 and Karnataka Motor Vehicles Rules 1989, no cases were registered against violation of the right of way of pedestrians. Countries like the U.S.A. penalize motorists who do not yield to pedestrians with fines up to $250.
It is evident that unwarranted vehicular dominance poses significant life and health risks, but there are also other underlying consequences that challenge the sustenance of transportation in India: a road environment that is hostile to pedestrians will further discourage people from walking, resulting in more people opting for vehicles. Our country is not ready to bear the health and environmental burden of increasing motorization. In addition, it unjustly affects the weaker and poorer segments of our population, who comprise a predominant percentage of non-motorized users.
This emerging problem needs tackling at the grassroots and policy levels. On one hand, it is important to build a collective resistance against insensitivity towards pedestrians on the road. On the other hand, policies should be strengthened through thorough implementation. Which means that the enforcement should prioritize pedestrians by rigorously checking violations of their rights.
It is estimated that by 2030 nearly 40% of the Indian population will be living in urban areas. We have a critical choice between making damaging allowances now that will undermine development, and creating a positive overhaul that will permit long-term sustainable growth of cities. Promotion of a road culture that is pedestrian-inclusive, through safe design, education, and enforcement, is a choice that we must make now.