Better design of city roads can and must deliver safety

My twitter feed and today’s newspapers are full of lament over the tragic death of Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde, who is considered a rising star in the newly elected BJP government. Munde died of internal injuries sustained in a road accident caused by speeding and rash driving (it’s controversial who was the culprit, his own driver or the one who hit him).

The tone of the lament heavily leans towards the political implications of losing an important political persona. A few articles here and there talk about the issue that stares us in he face- If a Minister on the central government dies in a road accident in the central part of the capital, what hope is there for the millions who use this country’s roads everyday. Should we not use this incident to highlight and drive home the need to do something about killer roads?

India’s road safety record is perhaps the most dismal in the world- 140,000 ppl died in 2012 alone as per official records, one death in every 4 minutes! Often we consider only fatal motor accidents. Many pedestrians and cyclists die every day and many more are severely injured. The fact that the majority of those injured and killed are the urban poor, whom no one mourns except their families, is one of the reasons these issues never make it to the government’s priority list!

Mulling over the the press coverage and adding knowledge gleaned from friends and colleagues (Special thanks to Bharat Singh, Romi Roy, Nipesh P Narayanan, Monolita Chatterjee, Amit Bhatt and Sarika Panda Bhatt), I’d like to make a few points about the issue of road safety in India.

On policy: A revised Motor Vehicle Amendment Bill has been pending in Parliament for a decade, which will bring in stricter consequences for traffic violations like speeding and drunken driving. However, experts say that the provisions in this law are outdated already. The Hindu today carries a piece on how UN goals need to be actualized, in which Save LIFE Foundation founder Piyush Tewari says: “The sole statute governing road safety in India, the Motor Vehicles Act-1988 (MVA), has proved ineffective in addressing any of these issues decisively. Even the last tabled Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2012, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2012, was archaic and contained recommendations which will not solve the current situation on Indian roads.” 

On road design: Of the three factors- human behavior, driving behavior and infrastructure- the third is the most easily fixable while the other two take time and a combination of awareness building as well as stringent policy formulation and implementation. The best way to fix transportation infrastructure is through improved road design. There is considerable evidence to show that flyovers and pedestrian foot overbridges are NOT the way forward for city roads. Rather, controlling speeds and offering cyclists and pedestrians at-grade crossings is the humane and intelligent way to design roads in the city. This means accepting that the automobile is one of many modes in the scheme of things and not all-important and this is a huge mindset change that needs to come in if we want safer cities to live in.

Let me use an example closest to home to explain what I mean. As mentioned in coverage in Hindustan Times today, one fatal accident happens every month on the road that I live in- Sohna road in Gurgaon. The road is designed as a highway instead of a city road, complete with crash barriers on the median, slip roads and minimum crossover points. The automobile is encouraged, by design, to speed up to 60-80 kms per hour and experts tell me the road is probably designed for over 100 km per hour speeds!

Stand on the road at any time and you will see pedestrians run across the road, climb over or under these ugly metallic barriers and then dart across the remaining stretch on the other side. There are no traffic signals for pedestrians to cross at all on the entire 4 km stretch despite heavy residential and commercial activity on the road. This is a complete design failure and therefore the roads deaths are also designed to happen. The authorities mus take cognizance that they are responsible for people dying and losing livelihoods owing to injuries every single day!

The HT Gurgaon edition carried a piece today on our citizen activism to make Sohna Road safer. Let's start with our own neighborhoods.

The HT Gurgaon edition carried a piece today on our citizen activism to make Sohna Road safer. Let’s start with our own neighborhoods.

Friends and acquaintances within the design community have started various initiatives to convince the government to involve both designers and citizens during the conceptualization of infrastructure projects. A failure to do this will only create more inhuman cities to the detriment of everyone.

On changing ourselves: I harp on this all the time, but I see merit in self-reflection on these issues as citizens. We all care for our own lives and the safety of our families, but do not do anything about it. Starting with changing our own behavior behind the wheel. So sensitizing ourselves to better road behavior and above all, including pedestrians and cyclists in our scheme of things, is important. We plan to take this up on Sohna Road through RWAs soon.

In another way, it is our reluctance to engage with local politics that allows government officials to get away with ad hoc decisions, poor planning and design resulting in unsafe neighborhoods. It is our duty to be aware of what is happening in our neighborhood and the more who involve themselves to raise a voice for improved governance, the better our lives will get!

Join us in our fight for better roads in Gurgaon by spreading the message that Better design is the most effective solution to safer roads and decreased casualties. By better design we mean roads designed to control speeds, proper at-grade crossover points for pedestrians and cyclists, footpaths and cycle paths to be included, properly designed speed brakers (not the poorly constructed car breakers we get), etc. There are guidelines available for urban roads with Ministry of Urban Development and UTTIPEC and we need to pressurize MCG and HUDA (and other local authorities wherever you are) to follow these and not bring in ad hoc designs that kill more people and make driving and walking a nightmare in our city.

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About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on June 4, 2014, in Urban Planning & Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Great post. I am going to liberally cross post this. But Muks – true indepth analysis of design of roads for indian cities – inclusive and safe, needs to be looked at. The public awareness campaigns need to focus on such educative approaches. And ‘give the streets back to the people – especially children’ need to be almost a slogan. Children claiming street spaces outside of residential areas need to be encouraged as movements. Remember the gully cricket we all grew up playing, which our kids have no access to? Its a shame that in a country where streets used to be the most major public space, today its a conduit for fast moving machines geared to take a tenth of the population from A to B while the rest are left to ‘scoot across fences’.

  2. I wish and hope all your efforts reach a conclusion sooooon …
    All the best

    but i still feel PEOPLE .. need to educated .. if people learn how ot use the road.. things will change for sure toooo ..

    • I agree but that takes very long and people need aids like well designed roads

      • yes .. but making new roads means.. either you demolish old roads or you build new ones , so you have extra roads..
        that is a lot of expense..

        more roads means , more vehicles , more chaos..

        In our nation as big its not easy to do that , it is sad that when the old roads were being built no proper planning was done ..

        so educating people, harsher penalties is a way to go forward ,, and in future when new roads ARE to be built they are doen with proper planning and Authorites who take that activity need to be Responsible and ANswerable if thigns go wrong ..

      • Roads are being remade all the time in india. All we ask is that the next time you do it, do it the right way. As if now there is no provision for basic needs like pedestrian crossovers or cycle paths. They just add lanes blindly. In the Indian context a lot more needs to be done including what you suggest. It’s parallel tracks.

      • I sincerely hope the government listens

  3. Hi Mukta, Your blog resonates my thoughts. As a followup to this mail, could you also spell out action items from a long and short term perspective. e.g Traffic awareness program for Vipul Greens, specific measures to make Sohna Road more vehicle and pedestrian friendly, relocation of hawkers to safer and cleaner places, support the work of NMT and Embarq etc..

  4. Totally agree about better designed Roads,making way for pedestrians and cyclists.
    Most important I feel people must be forced by Law to
    a)Wear their Car Seat Belts and limit the no of persons in Vehicle to seating capacity.
    b)Helmets for both Two Wheeler and Pillion rider mandatory.
    c)Cell phone usage whilst driving/suspend License
    d)Drunken Driving if found correct/Suspend License.
    e)All State Transport/Truck Drivers/Call Taxi to undergo mandatory Test again.
    Could be very controversial
    f)All Vehicle over 15 years old to be scrapped.
    Vintage Vehicles would be exempted subject to RTO OK.

    I for one strongly feel in our urban areas,our kids must go to school only Bus,/Public Transport should be integrated between enough Bus’s in the system/Metro so that Vehicles cannot be used in Cities between 8 am to 6 am./5 days in the week.
    Only Govt vehicles/Police/Ambulances/Fire are exempt.
    You pay a Token,like London of say Rs.1000/- per day to take out your vehicle.
    So use Public Transport/or if you can pay Taxis.

  5. Thank you for your kind acknowledgements Mukta. And you have highlighted a very salient but often silent point is the design of of our streets have been all but abandoned in favor of getting motorized vehicles to their destinations in the fastest way. While public activism is the way forward to change, but it must be understood by people and authorities alike that a roadway cannot and SHOULD NOT be looked at in isolation. If we do that we merely transfer problems to another segment or an adjacent roadway, which in turn does nothing to reduce overall safety. One has to think of traffic and roadways like a network of streams and rivers. If one stream gets impacted so will all others. While local residents are right in bring up issues with the Sohna highway and design issues, just fixing Sohna maybe pushing other adjacent routes or segments into greater peril. The right way to do this would be to look at a larger area’s traffic and travel patterns and understand how Sohna’s works before redesigning it to be more pedestrian friendly. We typically call this a mobility/network study, where we don’t just study the problematic road but the surrounding connected network. the scale of the network is typically define by the segment length being studied. We try and help classify the nature of the roadways in the the network and then provide design standards for the different type of streets classification developed under the study. This way one can safely account for minimal transference of the problem from one segment to another due to safety and and more equity improvements. for an example study you can look at a document done for the entire city of San Francisco called the Better Streets Plan.

    PS. Why have gone for this ultra small font look for your blog? I know you have huge doe eyes, but please be considerate of us four eyed beings. 🙂

    • Hi Bharat,
      Blog design changed! Thanks for pointing it out.
      To get back to the subject, Gurgaon does have a mobility plan in place that includes a fairly comprehensive BRT, but authorities are sitting on it while continuing to build disasters like Sohna Road everywhere. You must have heard of DLF’s 16-lane highway that cuts through communities and divides the city further! Sigh!
      Will look at the SFO plan certainly. Thanks for the lead. All we can do is learn and advocate and make a lot of noise!

      • Bharat Singh

        Thank you for your kind consideration and increasing the font size. 🙂 The mobility I was referring to is more about understanding and prioritizing types of modes on different streets rather than implementing large Mass transit projects.

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