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Vol. XXXI No. 10, September 1-15, 2021

Our Readers Write

by G. Sankaran

A Chennai Pedestrian’s Thrills

I have essentially been a pedestrian all my life. I continue to be so at the age of 89.

In my student days, I used to walk to my school and back. Ditto in college days. I took to walking seriously at age 15 when I joined the University College, Thiruvananthapuram. As you may be aware, the city, though not a hill city, is full of ups and downs, some of them quite steep. Since I was not into sports, these walks were a good exercise. I have continued the habit ever since.

I am now not on health walks but on the free thrills which I, as a veteran Chennai compulsive walker, have, and continue to have, on a daily basis. These never cease to amaze me. I have enjoyed being a pedestrian in cities like New York, Tokyo, Singapore, et al. but they are totally devoid of the ‘thrills’ of Chennai, if you get my drift. They – the former – are irremediably dull.

As a disciplined citizen, I should keep to the pavement. There is a small problem here. Where is the pavement? There are vast stretches of roads where there are no pavements and you have to rough it out on the roads with slow-moving and fast-moving vehicles. Where there are clearly marked pavements, as in parts of Mylapore, the pavements have been taken over by street vendors with their ‘potti kadais’ (kiosks). Where really broad pavements have been laid out, as in parts of Besant Nagar, most stretches are used for parking four-wheelers and two-wheelers or taken over by street vendors. Or as is the case next to my house, for storing construction material like sand, jalli, cement bags and, hold your breath, a concrete mixer. As though these were not enough, many of the pavement tiles are broken and are a real hazard. Then, there is the ever present flexi billboards celebrating some politician or poet or litterateur or announcing upcoming events, blocking your progress. The law apparently permits these billboards if they are parallel to the road and placed next to a wall. But they are then unlikely to attract attention; so they are placed right across the pavements, ‘in your face’ as it were. It is up to you to brave these obstacles and get your daily fix of ‘thrills’. Or, you can opt for the far more ‘thrilling,’ albeit risky, sport of laying claim to a share of the road proper. I have done both depending on the circumstances. Both are exciting. Take your pick!

It is a matter for solace that, following the recent accidental death of a young woman on a bike because of a falling billboard, a long line of which had been erected along pavements and road medians, the High Court has stepped in and banned such billboards. As a veteran Chennaite, I keep my fingers crossed wondering how long this discipline will last. It remains to be seen whether the High Court deals with infractions with an iron hand. Every political party, worth its salt, is addicted to billboards. And as you know addictions are hard to shake off. But, I must say that following the incident referred to earlier, billboards seem to have vanished: My experience is limited to Besant Nagar.

In Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, there is an elevated walkway. I thought this would be safe. But one day I saw a motor cyclist racing on it without a care in the world scattering walkers to the sides! During evenings, traffic builds up in front of my house. It is nothing unusual to see two-wheeler riders climbing on to the pavement and zipping across to avoid the jam! In this context, I would refer you to a report in ‘The New Indian Express’ of 05/11/2019 that the virus has infected the City-State of Singapore; electric scooters moving on footpaths had apparently caused a number of accidents. But the Singapore Government has now banned them from footpaths under pain of jail! Will our authorities take note and ban two-wheelers from riding on footpaths under pain of fine/jail?

Thanks to the initiative of the Corporation and some spirited citizens, Elliot’s Beach has been declared car-free for four hours on Sunday mornings. On weekdays, too, motor traffic is controlled in the morning hours. You can see the entire neighbourhood out on the beach on Sunday mornings: Children cycle, roller-skate, run and play without parents having to worry about their wards being hurt by vehicles. There springs up a stall for reading the day’s ‘The Hindu’. Adults and adolescents play shuttlecock. There is even a rap group. Almost every Sunday, ‘runs’ are conducted for good causes. In a word, it has become the ‘happening’ beach.

But, to my horror, I find that some (insignificant few, I admit) can’t digest their freedom of movement being curtailed. Once, a motorist at the police barricade, resentment writ large on his face, had the cheek to beckon me with a request to move the barricade aside so his car could move forward: He wouldn’t even deign to get down. I turned my back on him with a muttered ‘Go to hell!’

As I said earlier, I am a pedestrian of long standing. Literally. I stand for long, awaiting the most propitious moment to cross the busy road and arrive at my destination in one piece. Traffic signals are of mighty little help. Many of them have no green signals for pedestrian crossing. And where they are present and working, they provide hardly 10 seconds to make it to the other side. Apparently, this is so even in Anna Salai at its widest stretch near Spencer Plaza. Do read the report in The New Indian Express supplement of Aug. 4, 2018. The traffic authorities’ main concern is that traffic jams should not build up. Very understandable. But surely that should not mean sufficient time should not be allowed to the ‘unfortunate’ non-motorists to safely cross the road? The report talks of impatient motorists already on the move even before the signal has turned green for them. And on the other side, motorists trying to speed across before the signal turns red. Those who get caught between these two opposing ‘teams’ are stranded in the middle of the road, that is if they are lucky to make it to the middle. And it takes an eternity before it is time for them to cross. Where green signals for pedestrians are provided, they should time it such that even disabled persons, wheelchair riders and senior citizens are enabled to cross the junction safely. Clearly, it is too much to expect them to sprint across the road.

Another sore point: Where there are clearly marked pedestrian crossings and the green signal is on, free left turns are either allowed or taken for granted. Free left turns to motorists should be forbidden when the green signal for pedestrians is on! These, one would think, are self-evident propositions. But our authorities do not seem to think so.

And have you observed this: a long road with no pedestrian crossing in sight? You look this side and that and mentally compute the time you will take to make a safe crossing. You make a strategic move and out of nowhere zooms a bicycle or a motorcycle coming your way. It is my experience that it never occurs to the riders to go behind you; they will speed up and pass in front of you, upsetting all your calculations! You accept defeat and retreat to the relative safety of the kerb.

In Western cities and, nearer home, in Singapore, motorists stop for pedestrians to cross. Is it too much to expect this basic courtesy in India?

Lastly, I commend for our traffic authorities’ consideration, (please don’t reject it outright without proper consideration and a trial in a not-so-busy junction), the following practice followed in some cities in developed countries. I recollect seeing this in Wellington, capital of New Zealand. At busy road crossings, when there is a significant build-up of pedestrians, all wheeled traffic, except bicycles, are stopped from moving. And pedestrians are allowed to cross and crisscross, even diagonally, to the road they wish to take. This seemed to be for a full minute or so. Why can’t we adopt something like this at least on a small experimental scale? After all, pedestrians also pay taxes. Roads and signals made using tax money should not be only or essentially for the benefit of motorists while pedestrians are considered, at best, as a nuisance. As in many Western cities, why can’t we have some streets barred for vehicles? Pedestrian plazas? Perish the thought!

Post script: I read that now a pedestrian plaza has been created in busy T. Nagar. But I also read it is being used for parking vehicles and vending carts!

Shashi Verma, Chief Technology Officer for London Transport, while in Chennai said (as quoted by The New Indian Express), ‘While only around 7% of commuters in Chennai travel by car and around 25% travel by foot, government officials think only for the benefit of the niche segment that travels by car and for which they reserve the highest pedestal.’

To test the above, I invite fellow citizens to visit and see for themselves the virtually non-existent ‘pavements’ by the side of the LB road flyover at Adyar. Also, the ‘pavements’ which run in front of Narada Gana Sabha, adjoining the Alwarpet flyover. I can’t comment on other areas.

Oh, I forgot to mention that many cities in developed countries have installed self-operated push button signals at crossings to help the handicapped, the blind and senior citizens to safely cross roads. Is it too much to hope that our authorities too will explore the feasibility of installing such signals? At least they should try them on an experimental level at a few not-so-busy crossings.

G. Sankaran
T 43A, Seventh Avenue,
Besant Nagar,
Chennai 800090

Remembering 1947

The true highlight of Independence Day, 1947, was the illumination of the public buildings and commercial establishments. The grandeur and beauty has never been rivalled, not even for Republic Day, 1950. An uncle of mine, Mr. S. Venkatakrishnan, had a Baby Austin tourer, and he removed the top for the occasion. Other members of the family had bigger and better cars, but they were all hard top sedans, and we children of the extended family were unanimous in our choice of the Austin. The whole of Madras, with family and friends, was out on the night of August 14, and we took an hour and a half to drive from the gate of the Madras Medical College to the Ripon Building. No one grudged the delay, as we made friends with children in the other cars who had to peer through the windows. Pedestrians mocked us as they moved so much faster.

I feel sad as I recall the optimism and joy we felt on that day. My generation and the ones that followed have certainly let the country down, and we have sunk into corruption and venality.

M.K. Mani
1, Kasturirangan Road
Chennai 600 018.

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