Making India’s Urban Streets Safer By Design

India has the highest number of traffic-crash deaths in the world. Of the 140,000 fatalities that occur annually, more than 40 percent take place in urban areas. A large percentage of these are pedestrians and bicyclists, who typically comprise more than half of the road users in Indian cities. Often, motorists are booked for recklessness, whereas the actual cause and subsequent solution may lie elsewhere. Yet, the popular discourse around road safety is focused on measures that make vehicular-use safer, such as enforcing traffic rules, the use of helmets and seat belts and avoiding drunk-driving amongst others. The real causes of accidents are almost never considered.

Scientifically, an accident is a multi-factor event that hinges on three variables – road-user behavior, vehicle characteristics, and physical infrastructure. Creating better physical infrastructure is the most tangible action that will ensure better road safety, and it needs minimal enforcement. It therefore essential that all our roads be designed as per standard road safety engineering principles and be equipped with necessary physical features such as mid-block crossings and refuge points, to minimize accidents.

The Benefits of “Complete” Streets

Roads form the largest percentage of public space available for city dwellers. For example, in Mumbai, streets form 78 percent of the total non-buildable public space. Thus, creating a network of well-designed streets can result in multiple benefits for the city in terms of quality of life. Firstly, utilizing leftover spaces along the road network to develop comfortable and attractive public spaces can not only help accommodate ancillary functions characteristic of the Indian street-space, such as chai-stalls and street vendors , but also help support local commercial and cultural activity, including tourism. Secondly, comprehensive street design can serve critical environmental functions for the city such as reducing the heat-island effect through urban-greening and recycling storm-water run-off through built-in bio-swales.

Thirdly, it gives civic authorities the chance to ensure that urban streets are planned for the entire range of road users, and not just vehicles. Catering to the mobility needs of vulnerable users such as physically challenged persons, the elderly and children is absolutely essential. Integrating cycle-tracks and providing adequate and uninterrupted walking space can promote non-motorized transport (NMT), leading to substantial health benefits.

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