Monday, July 25, 2011

Pedestrians get it bad every which way

Jude Sessions has been reporting on underdog causes for a while now. It's time to spotlight that most harassed species in today's motor-centric urban cultures - the Pedestrian. With hardly any sidewalks left; and struggling with potholes, speeding traffic, bikers driving on the wrong side, and roads narrowed further by flyovers and metro construction, the average pedestrian in India finds it really hard going. I'm seriously thinking of making car stickers to alert motorists to this endangered species - Save the Walkers!

That the most ordinary of daily life processes - crossing a road - can be quite tough, and downright frightening at times, became obvious through an interesting experiment yesterday in Bangalore called “Come Cross the Road” by the Hasiru Usiru. During the peak hour between 5.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., the organisation studied the issues facing pedestrians, who were crossing the road at three different points of the city.  The event was part of the study being conducted by the organisation to collate data and present it to the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and traffic authorities to improve pedestrian safety in Bangalore.

It was seen that it takes five minutes for pedestrians to cross the busy Old Airport Road near Domlur flyover. On the suggestion of the children living in a Jayanagar slum, a similar experiment was conducted around the Sanjay Gandhi hospital and it was seen that it takes over six minutes to cross the road in front of Sanjay Gandhi hospital in Jayanagar IV Block. Volunteers found that the average waiting time before starting to cross the road was four minutes. Most pedestrians were forced to wait on the median for almost a similar time after crossing one carriageway. On the Old Airport Road, the pedestrians were stuck because of the lack of zebra crossings or traffic signals to facilitate pedestrian crossing. The absence of footpaths added to their inconvenience, according to volunteers. The signal-free corridor in front of Sophia's school near the Golf Course had a skywalk, but many pedestrians chose to run across the road. “One has to climb up the skywalk with 58 steps, and many disabled and senior citizens cannot use it,” said Vinay, a volunteer from Hasiru Usiru. “The city is made for cars and not pedestrians,” he lamented. Through the experiments, volunteers felt that skywalks are not a solution to address pedestrian woes. Instead, they advocated use of pelican lights - traffic lights operated by pedestrians when they need to cross the road. However, noting the inefficacy of these lights in places such as Chowdiah Road in Guttahalli, Shridhar Raman of the organisation, said, “Since motorists don't stop even at pelican lights, we either need a traffic constable present or even something as radical as a lever arm that comes down and forcibly stops motorists, like at a railway level crossing.”

Defensive Walking 
It's not a problem of the Third World alone though. Sustainable Streets, a nonprofit organization that encourages “active transportation” like walking and biking, feels senior citizens can especially benefit  from walking - and not just because it's the ultimate green mode of transportation. Alison Kendall, who conducts sessions with senior members of the community, feels that older people stand to gain from the increased mobility and balance walking brings them. It's also proven to increase longevity as it helps reduce depression, heart disease and diabetes. 

But disturbingly - the same population is far more likely to be victims of traffic fatalities. The American town of Santa Monica had 86 accidents involving pedestrians last year and two pedestrian fatalities since December. Of Santa Monica's 35 pedestrian fatalities from 2000 through 2010, 17 were over 65 years old, and of those, 12 were 80 or older, according to Santa Monica Police Department. The disquieting statistics have three causes: Pedestrian behavior, driver behavior, and the walking environment. While many of the same directions we all learned as children still apply to senior walkers, there are some additional caveats for them. Impaired vision and hearing, coupled with slower walking speeds and cognitive delays make it harder for seniors navigate traffic. As one senior quipped, “Streets are a lot wider than when I was younger.” A signal time that makes sense for a 30-year-old is far too short for those over 70. By the time the red flashing hand signal comes on, many seniors are just approaching the middle of the intersection, causing some to freeze and even turn around and go back, a move that's much more dangerous than continuing on. But the danger is highest before they get that far. Stepping off the curb is actually the riskiest part of the crossing.

Drivers often pay more attention to other vehicular traffic than to pedestrians, and walkers often have a hard time seeing around cars that have inched forward in hopes of a quick turn. Kendall urged seniors to look up and keep their “heads on a swivel,” hanging back until they're sure the coast is really clear. Crosswalks are no guarantee of safety, she said. People are often lulled into a false sense of security because they think they have the right-of-way.” And parked cars can't be assumed to be a safe bet. Listen for engine noises, look for parking lights and people in the drivers' seats. It's all part of “defensive walking.” Driveways are especially hazardous, as often both the pedestrian and driver can't see what's going on. It's another situation where the walker should hang back, but avoid hugging the wall, staying closer to the street where the driver has a better chance of seeing her. Be especially careful at the driveways to city parking lots downtown, where drivers “come barrelling out,” warned Principal Transportation Engineer Sam Morrissey. Wear light, bright colors, especially at night, and, it should go without saying, don't even think about jaywalking.

Getting cities to be pedestrian-friendly
There's a lot the city traffic engineers can do too. Well marked, highly visible crosswalks with median “pedestrian refuges” in the middle of wider streets help a lot. And smooth, obstruction-free sidewalks with wide buffer zones between sidewalk and street are safe and inviting to seniors who may be especially intimidated by traffic roaring by right next to them. No right turn on red intersections, slower speed zones, speed humps and countdown signals are all planning improvements that can make things a lot safer. Expanding curbs into the intersection at many corners, moving parking away from the corner could help to slow down traffic and improve visibility.

Redesigning transport systems to focus on pedestrian safety issues is also necessary. Dunu Roy, who runs the Hazard Centre in New Delhi, feels the new Bus Rapid Transport’ (BRT) system in Delhi "goes several steps further than merely designing a dedicated corridor for buses. It also provides for pedestrian and cycle paths that are obstacle-free, well-illuminated, properly-serviced, and disabled-friendly, thus catering to the primary needs of over 80 per cent of the commuters on the road. It has allocated space for utilities, rickshaws, and vendors; made it possible for Indian companies to build modern low-floor buses at a significantly lower price than foreign manufacturers; given priority to emergency vehicles to use the bus corridors", all of which have helped decrease the number of accidents on the road.

Despite these advantages, car owners now want another lane for themselves ‘to avoid congestion’, while providing over-bridges for pedestrians ‘to avoid accidents’; while pedestrians and bus commuters view the ‘indisciplined’ driver as the biggest hazard and do not think that the BRT has been able drill ‘traffic sense’ in them. This finally is the biggest problem. Pedestrians continue to be at greater risk simply because drivers of motorised transport just do not think that walkers have the right of way. And changing this attitude is the first step towards greater safety of those on foot.

The information for this post has been sourced from The Hindu, The Business Standard and the Lookout News, Santa Monica. 

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