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Special release: The right of way to pedestrians and cyclists

Don’t trade an arm and a leg to escape a traffic snarl, just use them. Research finds that a shift to walking and cycling can send the banks ringing from saved fuel, emission, congestion and accident costs. They also point to distances that people prefer to walk or cycle, which can guide the development of infrastructure encouraging a shift to non-motorized transport.

This body of research comes from the lab of Dr. Ashish Verma in the Centre for Infrastructure, Sustainable Transportation, and Urban Planning (CiSTUP) at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Their findings are revisited against the backdrop of talks to withdraw wide, pedestrian-friendly footpaths from road-planning projects in urban Bangalore.

Verma and his student TM Rahul reviewed literature to understand range of distances travelled by people and their choice of transport across different Indian cities. They also placed a rupee value on the benefits from a mere 1% population shift to non-motorized transport. To drive home their message, they applied this cost-benefit analysis to demotorization of MG Road - a major commercial centre in Bangalore. Further, they took a closer look at walking and cycling distances in Bangalore to identify how age, sex, travel purpose and socio-economic factors influence travel choices, calling for area-specific road planning.

The researchers found that in Indian cities a large proportion of people make small trips - 9.6-11.9 km long, while average walking and cycling distances range as 0.8-1.7 km and 1.7-5.2 km respectively. From these numbers, the researchers see the potential of walking and cycling as modes of transit from bus-stops and train-stations to commuter destination. This highlights the need for improving infrastructure around public transport centres - introducing pedestrian/cycle lanes, public bicycle sharing systems.

Absence of such facilities is the main impediment in containing vehicular growth which rose to 85 million in 2006 - a four-fold increase over 15 years. It also puts pedestrians at risk of road accidents, and leads to traffic congestion which can burn one’s pockets Rs. 10.5 per km, as calculated for Bangalore.

On the other hand if policy changes can influence at least 1% of Bangalore’s population (who make trips less than 5 km) to embrace walking or cycling, savings add up to an astounding Rs. 2.5 lakhs per day through avoiding fuel, pollution, congestion and accident costs. Pedestrianization of Bangalore’s busy MG Road alone can save Rs. 1600 per day in pollution and accident costs, apart from improving sales, land value and overall social atmosphere.

However, a cookie-cutter approach of using the same road design model for different localities within a city may not be successful. The researchers found that employed people walked or cycled farther than the unemployed, women walked shorter distances than men and vehicle owners chose to walk less as compared to non-owners. Thus, plans should be tailored to the cross-section of society that a road cuts through.

About 50% of Bangalore residents choose to walk for at least a part of their journey while only 4% use cycles. There is thus a need to improve footpaths for the already larger number of pedestrians, and introduce cycle lanes along with parking spaces to boost the number of cyclists.

But, the public has to be primed before civic changes are introduced to ease them into accepting the transition to non-motorized transport. “We are still in the aspirational phase of a large middle-class in India.” Aspiring to possess a car as a status symbol - the bigger the better. “Behavioural change takes time,” he admits.

And governments are often short-sighted, unsure of introducing changes that bear fruit only in the long run while their shelf-life is till the next election. The policy-makers need to be clear about their goals, and the goal with non-motorized transport, Verma says, is to “reduce our carbon footprint and provide sustainable mobility”.

Implementing policy changes to put the necessary infrastructure in place might be difficult but not impossible, he says. The costs are peanuts when compared to per km cost of flyovers and underpasses that are being created today, Verma adds. Local innovation should guide the planning within the city, he believes.

He also feels that infrastructure should also aim at seamless transition and end-to-end connectivity while integrating non-motorized transport with public transport systems. Pilot projects in isolated pockets of the city do not cut the deal for commuters to make a transition, he says.

“In other countries people walk and cycle much longer distance because their infrastructure is fantastic,” Verma says. He cites the example of Amsterdam which adopted a cycle-friendly policy under severe crisis in the early 1970s, and 60% of travel trips are made on cycle today.

“Eventually, a city has to be livable. The quality of life is not about having swanky cars and big houses. It is also about how you travel - how easy, comfortable, convenient and environment-friendly it is,” he ends.


Dr. Ashish Verma is at the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru and CiSTUP (Center for infrastructure, Sustainable Transportation and Urban Planning).


The studies appeared in the Journal of Transport Geography and Research in Transportation Economics.