Street designing needs a multi-disciplinary approach
It is imperative to look at the urban street design for Indian cities as a trans-disciplinary science that requires the combined expertise of civil engineering, urban design, and traffic engineering
Potholes, lack of footpaths, and traffic congestion are three keywords that surface when people talk about streets in Indian cities. They are not wrong; it is true that our roads are congested, lack basic pedestrian infrastructure, and are perennially choked, making walking unpleasant, if not dangerous.
But before we think of an overhaul, it is essential to understand that streets are not just conduits for traffic. Streets are spaces where people interact, run businesses, and neighbourhoods thrive. Streets are the largest contiguous public spaces in cities.
While our efforts are on building new roads, or widening existing roads, to cater to vehicles, only 3% people use cars. In most Indian cities, 36% of people walk or use cycles, followed by two-wheelers and buses (Census 2011). Yet, our efforts are focused only on moving vehicles, and not on providing safer pedestrian infrastructure.
Road projects are massive public expenditures, which makes them a big business. Building roads, widening, and repair works cost the exchequer $20-30 billion ( ₹2 lakh crore) every year.
In less-urbanised countries, the focus is mostly on building highways to connect cities. The standards for road building are determined by inter-city roads. We are at a critical juncture in India where we need to focus on moving people.
Urban streets typically need to have the structural strength to carry their traffic load and the design (widths, signals, crossings) to move vehicular and pedestrian traffic, while also allowing space for multiple usages such as storefronts and vendors. However, in Indian cities, design standards and tender requirements for building these streets still ensure that the focus is on the structural strength to carry traffic load and materials used to construct the road. Existing standards tend to overlook the design thinking required to provide smooth movement of traffic and pedestrians.
As cities across the globe reshape their road infrastructure in the wake of the pandemic, it is imperative to look at the urban street design for Indian cities as a trans-disciplinary science that requires the combined expertise of civil engineering, urban design, and traffic engineering.
By 2050, 60% of India’s population will be living in cities, up from the present 40%. As more people move to cities, there is a need to evolve new standards for urban streets and engage with the right experts – civil engineers to construct the street, architects and designers to determine practical usage of the space constructed, and traffic engineers to ensure effective movement of pedestrians and vehicles.
While there are ample technical institutes to train civil engineers, architects, and urban designers, there is a need to create more institutions that teach traffic engineering.
Traffic engineering has evolved in the West. In the United States, where 90-95% of people use cars to travel, traffic engineering rules, standards, and procedures are focused on moving cars. However, the traffic mix in Indian cities is different and requires us to evolve our own traffic engineering processes and standards. Therefore, we adopt these systems from the West without adapting them to the Indian context.
Along with a focus on traffic engineering, and employing a trans-disciplinary approach, there needs to be a complementary focus on transforming tender processes. Indian contractors have honed their expertise on structural strength since their payments are linked to the criteria of materials used and the ability to bear traffic loads. We need to go a step further and develop new procedures and payment criteria. Additionally, we must also consider building the capacity of contractors and providing them with the support needed to ensure the desired implementation.
While city planners are looking for places to create public spaces and parks, underutilised, unused spaces on streets can be redesigned to add vibrancy encouraging walking, biking, and organised commercial activities. There are multiple examples of cities around the world adopting this approach that has led to people embracing more sustainable forms of mobility, such as opting for walking, cycling, and public transport over private car usage.
India has pledged to become a “net zero” carbon emitter by 2070. Safer and inclusive streets can encourage more people to walk, cycle and use public transport, with the added benefits of smoothening traffic flow and reducing carbon emissions.
Madhav Pai is executive director, World Resources Institute, India and Dhawal Ashar is head, integrated transport at the same organisation.
The views expressed are personal