Road transport contributes 85% of the greenhouse gas emissions of India’s transport sector. Given this, safe pedestrian crossings are of great importance as they encourage people to opt for public transport. Here is a contrast between two cities, both with high population and vehicular densities, and yet with different approaches towards pedestrian safety

Pedestrians cross a busy road in Thrissur (Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

Pedestrians cross a busy road in Thrissur (Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

This is a tale of two cities. The first is Thrissur in Kerala, where a pedestrian can cross the road on a zebra crossing without the fear of being knocked down. The second is Chennai, where crossing a road can be an invitation to death or permanent disability.

The comparison between the two cities is not inappropriate. Thrissur has a high population density, so there are many people on the road. In the 2011 census, Thrissur urban agglomeration (UA) registered a population of 1.85 million people, whereas Chennai UA registered 8.69 million. The ratio was 1:4.69. However, when it came to population density – the number of people per square kilometre – the ratio declined. Thrissur UA had a population density of 15,000 persons per square kilometre whereas Chennai had a population density of 26,903 persons per sq.km, a ratio of 1:1.79.

Thrissur also has a disproportionately high vehicle population. According to the economic statistics of the Government of Kerala, there were 727,154 registered vehicles in Thrissur district in March 2011, which means there is a registered vehicle for every two persons. There are also thousands of vehicles registered outside the district that pass through the city, which is located on the most important highway of Kerala.

Suffice to say that though the traffic density in Thrissur cannot be compared to that of the metropolitan city of Chennai, there is enough vehicular traffic to keep the pedestrians off the road. And this is where the discipline of the zebra crossing comes into focus.

Perhaps there is also a social and historical reason for this. Built over years of Communist rule, Kerala society has internalised a sense of egalitarianism that many other states do not have. Thus, a pedestrian demands, and gets, equal opportunity to use the road as a driver.

In Chennai, the change started happening in the mid-1990s, when footpaths became narrower, and disappeared from many roads. The cars got bigger, there were far more of them on the roads, and the city administration seemed to prefer the rights of vehicle owners. On the wider roads of Chennai it is more practical to have subways or over-bridges for pedestrians. The city administration started to build them, but did not follow through with vigour. To make matters worse, the city administration did not develop an adequate number of zebra crossings to make up for the absence of above- and below-the-road structures.

Safe pedestrian crossings are of great importance environmentally because they encourage people to opt for public transport. Safety and reliability make public transportation effective. Commuters need to know exactly when they would get public transport, when and whether they will reach the destination on time and safely.

Thrissur achieves this with a combination of state- and privately-owned buses. While the state-owned buses connect to other cities of Kerala, the private bus network ensures that other towns and villages in the district are connected seamlessly with Thrissur city. For instance, whenever I have travelled to the city from Thriprayar town in the district, I have boarded a bus within a five-minute wait. On a few routes, the wait could be 15-30 minutes, hardly ever more than that.

This means that if someone with an appointment in Thrissur can start from Thriprayar 75 minutes before and be sure of reaching on time. And after getting off the bus at Thrissur, the commuter can cross the road without being knocked down. With these two realities, taking a bus instead of driving becomes a viable option.

The same cannot be said about Chennai. Though I live on Arcot Road, an arterial road in the city, I cannot say with certitude that I can reach an office at the other end of city within 90 minutes in a bus. A commuter train is more reliable in terms of its running time. However, boarding a train also requires crossing dangerous roads on foot. So, taking public transport for a meeting becomes a gamble that I may not want to take.

Chennai and Thrissur are near the two ends of the Indian urban development spectrum. Chennai – then called Madras – is one of the country’s earliest cities, developed by the British as a Presidency headquarters. Thrissur is a wannabe city. It was upgraded to a city from a town only in the year 2000.

Million plus cities and public transport

However, together Chennai and Thrissur can give a quick bird’s eye view of the situation in typical Indian urban centres. They are both one million plus cities, and according to Ministry of Urban Development figures, the number of such cities grew from 35 to 53 (a growth of more than 50%) between 2001 and 2011. Thrissur, along with cities such as Srinagar, Vasai-Virar, Jodhpur, Ranchi and Raipur, were among those that hit the million-plus club only in the first decade of this millennium. In million-plus cities or smaller urban centres, India is expected to add 404 million urban dwellers by 2050, the 2014 Revision of the World Urbanisation Prospects of the United Nations states.

Once these figures are considered, the positive impact that an efficient, safe and reliable public transport system can make on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be appreciated. The Interim Report of the Expert Group on Low Carbon Strategies for Inclusive Growth, published by the erstwhile Planning Commission, states that the transport sector contributes 7% of the total emissions in the country, and road transport emitted 87% of this.

In its Final Report, the expert group estimated that by 2030, the share of passenger kilometres (PKM) covered by cars would increase from the present 8% to 15%. At the same time, the share of PKM of buses would decrease from 75% to 61%. In terms of energy and fuel required – which in turn has a proportional impact on the emission of greenhouse gases – a car consumes four times more energy to move a passenger by a kilometre than a bus, and 11.3 times more than a train.

Thus, if I opt to drive my car instead of taking a bus or a commuter train, merely because it is not safe for me to cross the road on foot, then the climate change impact of this decision is much bigger than what we normally consider. The Thrissur model of effective zebra crossings should become a norm in other cities

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is regional environment manager with Panos South Asia. The views expressed are personal.

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