Dangers of letting cars dictate city design

Anumita Roychowdhury 

If any other cause was responsible for so many deaths and injuries as we see on our roads it would have been a state of emergency

CyclesSunita Narain—our colleague and friend—was seriously injured in an accident while cycling yesterday. A car hit her and fled. This cruel act of crime and heartlessness could have shattered our faith in humanity had it not been for the kind act of the stranger family who rushed her to hospital in time. Sometimes, something still holds in this brutal and cruel car-obsessed city of Delhi.


Even as Sunita braves her pain to sprint back to action—which she shall soon—this incident has shaken us up once again to the reality of this people-unfriendly city. How dare you walk or cycle? You cannot cross roads where you want and if you must, do so with prayer on your lips!  The right of way is for the macho car—is the message from the devil lurking in every detail of this city’s plan and road design.  

A public health concern

After more than a decade of campaigning for clean air to reduce disease burden in our cities, it is clearer to us why the World Health Organization (WHO) no longer treats road accidents narrowly as just a cause of injury but as a larger public health concern as it adds to the disability burden of the country.

We have said this before and I am saying this again—if any other cause was responsible for so many deaths and injuries as we see on our roads it would have been a state of emergency. But policy neglect in our cities is unsettling. A study by University of Michigan and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi, shows that the number of people killed in road accidents in India has increased at eight per cent annually in the past decade—nearly the rate at which car sales have grown. Cyclists and pedestrians are more than half of all road fatalities in the country but draw public disdain and policy hostility.

Sunita was hit at the foot of the clover leaf flyover near All India Institute of Medical Sciences. This flyover promises the dream of speed and unbridled smooth run to motor vehicles through signal free corridor. Delhi is still desperate for more flyovers and misses the point already understood by other nations. When cities adopt grade separated intersections and signal free corridors, it increases speed of all motorized vehicles—and accident risk. This is evident in the stark numbers from the recent analysis of the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme at the IIT-Delhi. This shows the probability of a pedestrian fatality in collisions with different vehicle groups in such areas can increase by 67 to 200 per cent.  

It is ironical that the other road—Aurobindo Marg—that cuts across this flyover on Ring road (where the accident had occurred), was recently reconverted—at the instance of the traffic police—from a signal free corridor to a signalized corridor to calm traffic and reduce accidents. As a signal free corridor, it had become one of the 20 deadliest roads of Delhi until 2011. But after it was signalized, it became one of the safest. The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, of which Sunita is a member, had supported this move.

Cycling has been made so difficult by design in this city where more households own bicycles than cars or two-wheelers. Delhi has the highest number of cyclists. But most people cycle not out of choice, but because they cannot afford anything else. But those who could have cycled as a preferred mode of travel shy away, are afraid and shun the idea.

Once I had asked a friend from Amsterdam what made them support the big transition from car-centric travel to cycling-- pushing the modal share of cycling to more than 35 per cent. She simply said the society has reached a stage where health gets high premium. Active transport—walking and cycling—makes eminent sense to them.

Car-centric design

What about our middle class? Are they not worried about what media has reported this weekend about increasing number of children ailing from hyper tension; or the warning from the doctors that childhood type II diabetes is on the rise; or that obesity is already a scourge? It is the car priority urban design and traffic management that surrenders public spaces and walkways to cars and parking, cuts off direct access of walkers and cyclists, increases their detours, and takes away play grounds from children. This locks up enormous ill health in our society. WHO has made explicit link between walking and health status of individuals. 

It may be tempting to conclude from the global accident data that the rich nations have fared better in securing road safety than poorer us. But the recent analysis of Dinesh Mohan of IIT-Delhi shows that even in the western world, road transport injury rates can vary among cities with similar incomes and population by a factor of three to five because of differences in urban and road design. Cities with higher proportion of wide streets and low density road networks have much higher fatality rates compared to more compact cities. 

Even in India, cities designed for high speed compromise road safety. Chandigarh with low-density, wide roads, high speed template records high number of road accidents per road length—201 per 1,000 km of road length in Chandigarh vs 245 in Delhi as in 2010 (though Delhi, a bigger city has higher total accident numbers). When globally the trend is towards reducing vehicular speed inside cities, Chandigarh has allowed vehicles to ply at speed of up to 65 km/hour. But now the reversal has started – it is reducing speed limit as well.

Reclaim space for people

Policy disdain and neglect is responsible for the homicide of zero emitters who are part of the solution to the mobility crisis and cancer-causing air pollution  that is snuffing life out of cities. Enough! Now is the time to reserve space for walkers, cyclists and public transport users on our roads. Give them safe and dedicated space, protect their rights, and design cities for safety and access. Actively discourage car-centric infrastructure.  Please do not be polite about your right to walk and cycle.

It is time to redefine the scope of rights and justice in case of road accidents. It is not only about those who hit senselessly but also those who build cities indifferently to increase only motorised speed and make people easy victims of crashes and injuries. They must also own up. Only if vertical accountability and liability is established along the entire supply chain of transport infrastructure delivery at the city government level will it be possible to ensure zero tolerance for any injury to zero emitters on roads.

Our right to walk, cycle and our health is not negotiable. There is war on our roads to reclaim space for people – for us.



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