india’s tryst with designing pedestrian-friendly streets
Pondy Bazaar, has been Chennaites’ most sought after shopping destination for several decades, long before the large shopping malls sprung up in the city. In November 2019, residents witnessed a drastic transformation of this cherished street into Chennai’s first pedestrian-friendly plaza, making this street yet another reason for people to flock to.
Designed with wider and continuous pavements, seating spaces, new lighting, play areas, dedicated parking zones, and green spaces, this street has redefined the shopping experience in Chennai. Friends and family members reached out to me, shared articles on this new pedestrian plaza in Chennai and were in complete awe of this beautiful “international-level” transformation.
Despite their admiration for the concept and design, they expressed one concern unanimously- the reduction in the street width, rendering less space for cars and other vehicles. “They could have increased the road width. Now, this is just going to create more traffic jams. How are people going to get around?”
Astounded by their statements, I realized that most of us are not aware of how our cities have been conditioned and designed to suit the automobiles and, in the process, has alienated its own citizens. Prioritizing cars on our streets have led to unsafe, unlively and unhealthy streets, causing a negative effect on our quality of life.
The Real Purpose of The Pedestrian-Friendly Street
Streets have been our oldest social spaces which connected diverse areas of the city, creating multiple spaces for communal activities and points for interaction along the way. With an increase in the growth of private vehicles and automobiles, streets were no longer seen as public spaces, rather, just a medium to traverse through, in order to get to your destination. Streets designed primarily for transportation are overlooked as potential public spaces.
In most cases, pedestrians are often ignored, resulting in narrower sidewalks, non-shaded spaces, broken footpaths, which eventually reduces the walkability of the neighbourhood and in turn the civic life. Rapid urbanization, along with the growth of automobiles, has torn apart the social fabric of our cities and clogged the streets with cars.
“Our society once created many different types of streets. A street was not just a conduit for moving cars and trolleys through, but also a place in its own right for socializing, entertainment, commerce, and for civic expression. Pedestrians (and their natural allies, the cyclists) ruled.” -Victor Dover
More The Traffic On The Street, Less The Human Interaction
Donald Appleyard and Mark Lintell, in their empirical study of three residential streets, of similar character in San Francisco, highlighted the social consequences of traffic. The study illustrated how the increase in traffic on a street is directly proportional to the reduction in social interaction between the neighbours, resulting in a less vibrant social life. Lesser social life on the street also creates dark spots, lesser eyes on the street (a term coined by the notable author Jane Jacobs which refers to the informal surveillance created by people simply by being present on a street), lesser activities, and in turn making it unsafe and an insecure space to walk through.
“Studies of urban streets (…) have concentrated almost exclusively on increasing their traffic capacity through devices such as street-widening, signalization, and one-way streets, with no parallel accounting of the environmental and social costs of these alternatives”-Donald Appleyard and Mark Lintell, “The environmental quality of city streets: the residents viewpoint,”
Reality: Pedestrians Bring Business
Commercial streets thrive on a good amount of pedestrian footfall, which consequently generates revenue for the stores. Now imagine a commercial street that has lesser pedestrian traffic due to the increase in the street traffic load. The street ends up losing its “vibrancy” and store revenue drops, as a result of a decrease in the pedestrian foot traffic. Pedestrian-Friendly streets bring business, unlike the popular myth that pedestrianization kills business.
The Turnaround of Pondy Bazaar
A commercial street such as Pondy Bazaar, which has been around since the 1930s or 1940s, cannot be replicated and re-created in a street elsewhere. Traffic, on the other hand, can be dispersed into the neighbouring streets, in order to maintain the original vibrant commercial character of this historic identity of the city.
Dispersion of traffic into neighbouring streets, to pedestrianize a street, is a technique followed by most European and American cities. Closing off streets to automobiles was commonly seen in the inner cities of Germany, which after World War II, aspired to strengthen trade in the commercial regions and improve the shopping experience for the pedestrians.
Copenhagen’s main street Stroget was converted into a pedestrian street from a vehicular one in 1962. It was a drastic experiment when cities around the world are building flyovers and new highways for automobiles, ripping apart the city’s core. Studies on Stroget show that businesses thrived and people came out in large numbers to this newly pedestrianized street- nearly 35% increase in pedestrian traffic within the first year.
Times Square, in New York City, was yet another revolutionary vision, conceived as an experiment to transform a traffic centric street into a public space. Who would have thought that Times Square, one of the most well-known public plazas in the world was once a place only for cars? Studies reveal that this transformation has improved transport time for vehicular traffic by 17% and the number of pedestrian injuries due to traffic, reduced by 35%.
Prioritizing Public Transport
Another aspect that gets overlooked while designing streets for private automobiles is equity. Prioritizing a particular mode of transport, cars (their manoeuvring and parking) on a public asset, such as the street, clearly demonstrate an imbalance in the distribution of resources. Private cars are capable of moving a far lesser number of people on the street, compared to buses, cycling and even walking. By designing a pedestrian-oriented street, coupled with a good public transit system and cycling facilities, one can transport more people on the same street, making it more efficient, fairer, healthier and more fun, as opposed to a street designed for cars.
SOS: Save Cities From AutoMobiles
Streets filled with pedestrian activities and public spaces were once a reflection of the city or neighbourhood, and are now being replaced by cars, traffic, and parking spaces, devoid of the active social life of the people. We must accept the fact that automobiles have improved accessibility to various parts of the city and need to be accommodated on our streets, but not at the cost of the citizens’ quality of life. The city’s infrastructure should support the social life of the city, not replace it.
“A city should be built to give its inhabitants security and happiness.”-Aristotle
Let’s create cities where we create spaces for long-lasting memories, vivid experiences and an opportunity to fall in love with what makes the cities vibrant- its people.