Mention footpath and our cup of collective cynicism runneth over. Yet Corporation of Chennai (CoC) seems determined to prove us wrong. CoC has identified 60 bus route roads in the city and around 170 km in the newly-added areas to upgrade street facilities to world class standards.
Sceptical? Anecdotally, 80 per cent of our footpaths have no real encroachments. They are just badly designed and maintained and can be set right. 10 per cent have obstacles that can be removed and the rest have serious encroachments. Is 90 per cent a good start?
Usable footpath is a complex system and there is nothing pedestrian about it. Material selection, height, changing width depending on pedestrian demand, placement of trees, toilets and furniture, accommodating vending, parking and public activities, not to mention “sacrificing” carriageway are serious issues. Interagency matters like shifting of utilities, removing pavement temples, mosques and churches, and private gardens can seem politically hopeless.
Luckily a lot of preparations have been going on for some time. Organisations like ITDP and Chennai City Connect have developed standards, templates and concepts for various types of streets. Agencies like Chennai City Traffic Police (CCTP) have been experimenting with better utilization of available carriageway. According to CMDA, 40 per cent of our roads are under-utilised or misused. CCTP followed parking standards to mark slots on crowded roads, identified ordered parking spaces and improved traffic flow. CoC and TNEB shifted electricity boxes from a few footpaths to private properties, freeing up space for pedestrians. CoC has prototyped modern ducts and grilles to replace tiny pipes that clog easily.
Importantly, the various planning agencies appear to have arrived at a consensus — pedestrian safety is paramount and Chennai streets should provide a much better quality of life to its citizens. One can sense political determination and a can-do attitude among officials and engineers. Let the city quickly capitalise on that.
CoC has selected 11 roads where experts from Chennai Architecture Foundation are helping with physical surveys, documenting conditions and design of facilities. CoC is also challenging wasted space under flyovers and attempting to improve public space for public good, safe crossings at junctions while improving traffic flow and so on. CoC is creating sample footpaths with various materials to facilitate decisions, caution potential bidders and train implementers. Training workshops for CoC officials has begun. Preferably, citizen activists could pitch in to help monitor details and quality of construction.
When it comes to maintenance, CoC should think outside the box. Like in London, can experienced agencies help CoC monitor and maintain upgraded streets? Like in New Delhi, can aesthetic design and public campaigns create more awareness about the much neglected issue of public toilet maintenance?
Chennai is a big city. Help from NGOs and volunteers can only go so far. In order to scale up operations, CoC announced empanelling of architects for road design in its last budget. Once features are tested and standardized, and importantly, the city gains confidence and optimism, design and implementation can be focused upon.
Finally, a personal wish. Once CoC completes upgrading a street, both the abled and differently abled must conduct periodic wheelchair tests — ride a wheelchair from end-to-end and certify that the footpath is functional and acceptable as per world class standards. Here too, hopefully, like in the city's quest for delightful pedestrian facilities, the Mayor and city officials will show the way.