How We Can Build Safer Streets in Cities


Scaling Up People-Centered Design In Indian Cities

Our streets should be designed for people, not just cars. Yet in many Indian cities, streets continue to prioritize vehicles over pedestrians and cyclists. This has led to dangerous conditions that discourage walking and biking. However, some cities are pioneering new approaches to street design that put people first.

As India rapidly urbanizes, cities have an opportunity to shape their growth around sustainable mobility. By adopting people-centered street design, they can create vibrant public spaces that improve safety, health, equity and overall quality of life. This article explores innovative projects in Indian cities that demonstrate the potential for scaling up safer streets.

The Need For People-Centered Streets

Streets make up a major portion of public space in cities. Well-designed streets don’t just facilitate movement; they shape the character of neighborhoods and provide places for social interaction. Yet many Indian streets cater overwhelmingly to motorized transport even though a significant portion of road users walk or cycle. Uncontrolled motorization has claimed street space from pedestrians and cyclists, discouraging mobility and jeopardizing safety.

Wide roads devoted to speeding vehicles divide communities and are dangerous to cross on foot or cycle. In 2015, 137,572 people in India lost their lives in road crashes; many of these deaths occur on streets where speeding vehicles imperil pedestrians. Pollution and noise from traffic also harm public health. Ultimately, auto-centric streets fail to provide access and comfort for all people who use them.

People-centered street design recognizes that streets have multiple functions. The National Urban Street Design Guidelines by India’s Smart Cities Mission note streets should provide not just mobility but also public space for economic and social activity. Streets that balance movement with human-scale design can better nurture local economic vitality, social inclusion and community identity.

Cities around the world have created vibrant, human-scale streets that encourage walking, cycling and public life through design elements like:

  • Wide sidewalks with ample pedestrian space
  • Safe crosswalks and intersections
  • Protected bike lanes
  • Traffic calming features like speed humps and chicanes
  • Public plazas, parks and recreation spaces
  • Street furniture, lighting, planting and greenery
  • Accommodations for vending, café seating and cultural activities

These features make streets safe, comfortable and enjoyable for people traveling on foot or bike. They also create dynamic public places that benefit local businesses and foster community life.

Many Indian cities today consist largely of dingy, noisy and dangerous streets that fail to provide quality public space for residents. But as India continues to urbanize, cities can shape growth around human-centered street design rather than auto-centric planning. Pioneering projects in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and others point the way forward.

Early Ambitions For Better Streets

India’s first major pedestrianization effort came in Mumbai in the 1960s, inspired by street projects in Europe and America. The transformation of Kala Ghoda into a car-free arts district provided a new public venue for festivals and street performances. However, it failed to spur similar initiatives.

Later pedestrianization schemes in Connaught Place, Delhi and M.G. Road, Bangalore were discontinued due to implementation challenges and resistance. Yet these early efforts planted an ambition for better street design.

Renewed interest in people-oriented streets emerged in the 2000s, inspired by advocacy groups like the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). Their proposals for transforming neighborhoods in Chennai and other cities illustrated the benefits of prioritizing walking, cycling and public transport over cars.

Global conversations around sustainable transport also inspired Indian policymakers and planners to recognize streets as vital public spaces. New guiding documents like the National Urban Street Design Guidelines outlined a vision for multimodal, human-scale streets.

Several cities began re-imagining street design with initiatives like:

  • The Raahgiri Day open streets events launched in Gurgaon in 2013
  • Complete Streets projects in Chennai, Bhubaneswar and other cities
  • Reclaiming streets for pedestrians in Kalyan and Thane in Mumbai’s periphery
  • Car-free Sundays on major thoroughfares in cities like Gurgaon, Hyderabad and Mumbai

These initial projects highlighted the demand for safe, vibrant public spaces. They paved the way for more comprehensive street redesigns.

Best Practice: Revitalizing Pune’s Street Network

One influential initiative was the 2008 street design manual for Pune, developed by the NGO Parisar with support from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. It provided the first Indian city-focused guide for balancing pedestrian space with traffic flow.

The manual helped build local capacity in progressive street design. This led Pune to pioneer people-centered street projects that inspired other cities.

Jangli Maharaj Road was one of Pune’s first complete streets redesigned for multimodal access. The busy arterial road was notorious for congestion and accident risks to pedestrians. The redesign project narrowed motor vehicle lanes to build wide, continuous footpaths, refuge islands and improved crossings.

Dedicated cycle tracks were added along a stretch of the road for the city’s Public Bicycle Sharing system. Street furniture, lighting and planting improved the pedestrian experience. The project demonstrated that transforming car-centric streets for walking and cycling was feasible.

Aundh-Baner-Balewadi High Street is another pioneering Pune project connecting outer neighborhoods via multimodal streets. The plan features wide, shaded sidewalks, cycle tracks, clearly marked pedestrian crossings, traffic calming features, regulated parking and public spaces.

The high street design innovated best practices for streetscape elements like footpath paving, street furniture, junction treatments and signage. It balances access for motor vehicles with ample, dignified space for pedestrians and cyclists.

The visibility of these redesign projects positioned Pune as a leader in progressive street transformation. They served as replicable models for creating safe, socially vibrant public spaces on arterial roads.

Scaling Up Through Smart Cities Mission

The national Smart Cities Mission launched in 2015 provided momentum and financing to scale up advanced street projects across India. The program emphasizes re-imagining streets as crucial public spaces. It has funded targeted redesign initiatives as well as city-wide streetscape guides.

For example, Bhubaneswar used Smart Cities financing to develop its Walk Smart Bhubaneswar strategy. The plan identifies a network of key streets for improvement through:

  • Wider, safer pedestrian space
  • Organized parking
  • Junction improvements, crossings and refuges
  • Landscaping, street furniture and lighting

Bhubaneswar aims to execute streetscape upgrades on over 100 km of roads. Other cities like Surat, Udaipur and Tiruppur have also prepared comprehensive street redesign strategies under the Smart Cities Mission.

Individual Smart Cities projects like Kota’s Moksh Marg and Visakhapatnam’s Beach Road demonstrate global best practices. They feature numerous pedestrian safety and comfort elements like:

  • Continuous, obstruction-free footpaths
  • Traffic calming features like raised crosswalks
  • Public spaces for recreation and events
  • Street furniture, greenery and shading

By financing exemplary projects, Smart Cities has mainstreamed innovative street design across India. It has also fostered knowledge exchange between cities through accelerators like the Smart Cities Fellowship. The program has built local capacity to deliver people-centered streets at scale.

People-First Design In Chennai

The city of Chennai has emerged as one of India’s leaders in sustainable street transformation. A powerful civil society movement for better urban mobility catalyzed people-centered design projects. These were boosted by the national Smart Cities program which financed ambitious streetscape revamps.

One pioneering project was the 2017 redevelopment of T. Nagar in central Chennai. The bustling commercial district attracted huge pedestrian volumes but had narrow, cluttered footpaths. Uncontrolled parking spilled onto walkways. The area saw frequent road crashes and lacked public space.

The Smart Cities project introduced Chennai’s first pedestrian plaza by renovating Thenagar Square. Footpaths were widened and pavements upgraded across the neighborhood. The plan removed bottlenecks for walkability while adding amenities like seating and greenery that made streets more vibrant and livable.

Another prominent revamp is the 1.5 km redevelopment of NSC Bose Road. The project transformed a traffic-clogged arterial into Chennai’s first complete street with:

  • Wide, continuous sidewalks
  • Safe pedestrian crossings with refuge islands
  • Organized on-street parking
  • Improved bus stops
  • Public spaces for recreation and vending

Once inhospitable to pedestrians, the road is now a thriving public venue attracting visitors. Smart design has united mobility with economic and community life.

Various wards across Chennai have also created walking-friendly streets through the government’s Namma Chennai, Namma Streets initiative. By learning from these pilots, the city aims to scale up sustainable street design city-wide.

Key Outcomes Of People-Centered Streets

Well-designed streets enhance safety, sustainability, economic vitality and livability. Global evidence shows people-centered streets create multiple benefits:

Improved Road Safety

  • Lower risk to pedestrians and cyclists from traffic
  • Reduced vehicle speeds and safer driving behavior
  • Fewer road crashes and traffic fatalities

Increased Walking And Cycling

  • 50-250% higher walking and cycling rates after street interventions
  • More women, children and elderly using active mobility
  • Major shift from cars to sustainable modes like walking/biking

Enhanced Access And Inclusion

  • Dignified mobility for all ages and abilities
  • Safe access for women, children and elderly
  • Improved access to jobs/services for low-income groups

Stronger Communities And Public Life

  • More neighborhood identity and social cohesion
  • Increased community/cultural activities in public space
  • More women, children and elderly out in public space

Economic Development

  • 35-40% higher retail vacancy rates on pedestrianized streets
  • Improved business and employment due to lively streets
  • Higher property values on walkable streets

Environmental Sustainability

  • Lower congestion and transport emissions
  • Reduced noise and air pollution
  • More green space from trees/planting

Challenges To Scaling Up Redesign

While India’s cities have made great strides, retrofitting auto-centric streets for inclusive access remains an uphill task. Some key challenges include:

Policy And Institutional Barriers

  • Outdated standards and guidelines favoring cars
  • Weak coordination between agencies
  • Poor enforcement of parking, vending etc.

Design And Capacity Gaps

  • Inadequate design expertise in people-centered streets
  • Focus on isolated stretches vs network approach

Social And Cultural Inertia

  • Public opposition and lack of awareness
  • Preference for private vehicles over walking/cycling

Weak Implementation And Maintenance

  • Poor construction quality and maintenance
  • Lack of streamlined maintenance responsibilities

Traffic And Parking Pressures

  • High traffic volumes competing for limited road space
  • Encroachment from on-street parking

Overcoming these barriers calls for a collaborative, sustained approach engaging diverse stakeholders over the long term.

The Way Forward: Seven Key Steps

Transforming street networks for inclusive access and livability is a complex undertaking. Based on global best practices, Indian cities can pursue progressive street revamps through these key steps:

1. Set Clear Goals And Targets

  • Define measurable safety, access and sustainability targets
  • Prioritize streets for transformation to meet targets

2. Develop A People-First Design Toolkit

  • Create street design standards focused on universal access
  • Contextually adapt global best practice guidance

3. Engage And Build Capacity Among Stakeholders

  • Raise awareness on links between design and accessibility
  • Train urban agencies, professionals and police in new approaches

4. Plan Transformations At Network Scale

  • Identify priority streets for redesign across the city
  • Ensure connectivity and continuity for walking/cycling

5. Implement Projects Through Best Practice Approach

  • Ensure high quality design, materials and construction
  • Maintain pedestrian accessibility during construction

6. Promote Behavior Change Through Events/Activities

  • Partner with civil society groups for participatory activities
  • Organize educational events to build public ownership

7. Monitor And Maintain Upgraded Streets

  • Streamline agency roles in management and upkeep
  • Enforce regulations on street vending/parking through fines

A comprehensive, participatory approach can help institutionalize people-centered design as the norm for delivering safe, healthy and vibrant streets.

Scaling Up Safer Streets For Livable Cities

Streets are vital public spaces that must serve the needs and aspirations of all people in cities, not just car users. Around the world, cities are transforming streets to improve safety, sustainability, inclusion, economic vitality and livability. Indian cities have built inspiring projects that reimagine streets as thriving social venues.

The success of early initiatives has demonstrated the overall benefits of people-centered design. It has also highlighted implementation challenges that call for collaborative solutions. Going forward, cities must adopt a coordinated, long-term programmatic approach with bold goals for city-wide transformation.

National initiatives like Smart Cities have made significant strides in mainstreaming progressive street design. But institutionalizing safe, sustainable and socially vibrant street networks remains an ongoing endeavor.

Focused capacity building, extensive public engagement and a systems-level approach can help scale up people-first street design across India’s rapidly growing cities. The outcome will be vibrant public spaces where people of all ages and abilities can walk, cycle, traverse streets, and congregate safely.

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