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Vol. XXXIII No. 13, October 16-31, 2023
Touting the success of the T. Nagar Pedestrian Plaza, the Greater Chennai Corporation announced earlier in August that it will build 13 pedestrian plazas as part of the Chennai Mega Streets project and with funding from the World Bank. According to a Times of India report, the project will develop 50 kms of pavement into pedestrian plazas: 3 kms along Thiruvottiyur High Road (Old Washermanpet to New Washermanpet); 0.7 km along Evening Bazaar and Rattan Bazaar Road; 2.4 km along Anna Nagar Third Avenue; 1.3 km along Kilpauk Garden Road; 1.5km along Pulla Avenue; 3.5 km along Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai–Cathedral Road, and 1 km along Eldams Road. Velachery Main Road, Canal Bank Road, West Canal Bank Road, Taluk Office Road, Race Course Main Road and Shastri Nagar also fall under the development plan. Initial designs of these new pedestrian plazas include spaces for walking, cycling and parking as well as a two-lane carriageway in some stretches. In fact, work on the pedestrian plaza at Khader Nawaz Khan road in Nungambakkam – a project costing Rs. 19.8 crores – commenced last month, with designs including amenities such as disabled-friendly pathways, dedicated ducts for electricity lines, seating, planters and lighting bollards, among others. Mr. K.N. Nehru, the Minister for Municipal Administration, Urban and Water Supply, inaugurated the project, which is reported to have a completion deadline of 18 months.
The announcement unveiling the plan for new pedestrian plazas has met with mixed reactions. While many citizens and urban planning experts have warmly welcomed the creation of public spaces for pedestrians, some are cautious in their optimism given the state of the pedestrian plaza at T. Nagar, the city’s first amenity of its kind inaugurated in 2019.
Though the design received a positive response from the public, maintenance has proved to be tricky – the wide footpath is often prey to haphazard parking and illegal traffic, defeating the intent. Ground reports have pedestrians complaining of bike riders often using the path to beat the road rush, and shoppers tend to park their vehicles on the bylanes along the plaza as well as the plaza itself on busy days. The situation has been hard to solve despite the provision of both designated on-street parking and a multi-level car park. The Times of India reported the City Corporation Commissioner Dr. J. Radhakrishnan addressing the issue, stating that the authorities intend to improve the regulation of pedestrian plazas to prevent their misuse.
Streets are a public facility that collectively cover a much larger area of the city than other public spaces like parks and beaches. That pedestrian plazas are a good concept is unarguable – they stand to provide the people additional spaces for recreation and social interaction, free of charge; why, at their best, they are likely to even foster a sense of community in their neighbourhoods. But are such initiatives of prime concern to the city’s pedestrians?
Chennai’s footpaths leave a lot to be desired. Most labour under encroachments from motorized vehicles, hawkers and, in some cases, even private buildings that have appropriated these public paths to place greenery outside their homes.
There are also some roads with no footpaths at all, rendering areas such as Ramapuram and Valasaravakkam quite unfriendly to pedestrians. Those who commute on foot or access public transport are forced to walk alongside vehicles, with the burden of their safety falling solely on their own shoulders. In fact, an April report in Citizen Matters published that pedestrians comprised 35 per cent of the road fatalities in Chennai. Surely, given resource constraints, the provision of standard, quality footpaths across the city must take precedence over elaborate developments confined to specific areas? This is especially true for localities such as Anna Nagar, a planned area already having good pavements. It is crucial that facilities like pedestrian plazas are planned from the beginning as collaborative initiatives with both the public as well as the residents of each neighbourhood.
However, the decision has already been announced and the city is set to receive its 13 new pedestrian plazas. One hopes that community engagement and outreach will be conducted in regard to the design, at the very least. That would afford the plazas a better chance to develop into a useful community resource, with the public naturally taking ownership of its maintenance.