Why Pune’s FC Road footpath improvement project needs all the support it can get...
I hold the highest regard for my dear friend, Ashish Kulkarni’s opinions on a wide variety of topics. For many years now, he has been my default go-to person for many a personal quandary on economics, literature, history, politics, technology and, of-course, all things gastronomical.
I have often found myself on the opposing bench of an argument with Dr Kulkarni; but more often than not, despite my best efforts, a couple of hours of well-articulated reasoning later, I would find myself being reeled over to his side.
Last week, Ashish wrote this humorous piece on the FC Road footpath improvement project, in which he expressed his bewilderment on why the Pune Municipal Corporation would sanction a project “to narrow the road”, given the city’s notorious traffic congestion.
And once again, I find myself on the opposing side of an argument with this man!
It rattled me enough to decide to write this rebuttal, where I will attempt to convince his readers, (and hopefully, him) on why this initiative by the PMC deserves all the support it can get.
Ashish opens his piece with a seemingly straightforward statement – “They are narrowing Fergusson College Road”. This innocuous statement conveys, in itself, an inbuilt bias that I will proceed to deconstruct.
The PMC is not narrowing FC Road. It is merely reallocating space away from the motor-vehicle, and giving it to the pedestrian. So, technically, it is narrowing the carriageway (the traffic lanes), and not the road itself.
Now it may seem like I am grabbing at a technicality to make a cheap “gotcha” point, but my intention is to merely bring out an inherent bias in Ashish’s thought process, and indeed, the same holds true for most of us.
We are programmed to see the road from the perspective of only the motor-vehicle user, completely ignoring the silent majority that actually uses the road – namely, pedestrians.
Look up the statistics for any Indian city and You will find that more than half the trips, by all commuters put together, are done on foot.
In addition, almost every trip on public or paratransit will also have a walking component. Despite this, pedestrians are a sorrowfully low priority for our city administrators. This is most evident in the allocation of road space, where pedestrians are pushed to the periphery, (both figuratively and literally), with woefully inadequate footpaths.
This gross mismatch between need and priority is obviously going to take its toll on road safety. It is no surprise that more than half of all road crash deaths in our cities are of pedestrians.
My second argument in favour of this project may actually seem counterintuitive. But I believe that if carriageway widths are reduced and streamlined in a judicious and systematic manner, it will actually end up improving traffic flow!
To understand why this can happen, one has to first understand the characteristics of traffic flow. Generally speaking, traffic flows faster through a wider carriageway than it does through a narrow one.
But what happens when there is a frequent change in the width of the carriageway? You end up with traffic bottlenecks, where a large volume of traffic accumulates at the mouth of the narrow section. Now vehicles, unlike pedestrians, are bulky, rigid creatures. They can’t easily reorganize themselves to ply through a narrower stretch. So this causes huge delays, as vehicles, slowly try to nudge their way through. Had the carriageway been of uniform width along its entire stretch, then traffic is also likely to flow at a uniform speed, thus making traffic bulges a lot less likelier.
One may argue that rather than narrowing the carriageway before the bottleneck, wouldn’t it make more sense to instead widen the carriageway at the bottleneck, so that traffic can flow through at a higher, albeit, uniform speed? This is, no doubt, true.
But it is not always easy to implement, especially at the network level, when we have streets in highly built-up areas that have no potential to expand. In this context, having wide carriageways on the approach roads actually make things worse. Think of the twin roads of FC and JM from this perspective. They are both 3+ lanes, one-way roads in opposite directions, leading up to 2+2 or 3+3 lanes, two-way roads, such as Ganeshkhind Rd, Karve Rd and LBS Rd. None of these roads can be widened any further.
So a narrower carriageway on FC and JM road can actually improve traffic flow, because it will mean that traffic will arrive at the intersections with the latter roads in a more streamlined and evenly distributed manner.
My final point in favour of footpath augmentation, is more romantic than technical. But it is, perhaps, the most important point, because, before cities can become well-oiled machines, they have to be vibrant, living entities.
I ask you to think of the names of the most famous streets in great cities across the world. What names come to mind? Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris perhaps? Or maybe Broadway in New York? Or Orchard Road in Singapore? Or closer home, Marine Drive in Mumbai, perhaps?
What is the one thing that makes all these roads iconic? The answer is simple. They are streets full of people – lots and lots of people – of all kinds; the purposeful walkers and the aimless strollers alike. These are places of commerce and recreation all rolled into one; the places where one goes to get the real ‘feel’ of the city. You can never truly experience these streets inside the confines of a motor-vehicle. No, you have to walk through them, at the pace where the mind, the soul and the feet are all in sync.
And what is the one ingredient that makes this all possible? You guessed it – enormous, well laid-out footpaths.
Or perhaps that term is, in itself, too limiting, because the movement of people is just one facet of what makes these spaces so vibrant. I have often wondered how the term, ‘being pedestrian’, came to share the meaning of being drab or boring. Because being a pedestrian is anything but boring. If only, you find yourself in the right kind of street.
Now I ask you this. In Pune, if you had to pick a candidate for a potentially iconic street, would not FC Road be a natural first choice?
Think of the real character of this road. Recall the number of iconic restaurants, retail outlets and educational institutions that line its boundaries. When India won the cricket World Cup in 2011, where did all of Pune congregate? Doesn’t a road like this deserve something better? Don’t we?
In a country, where pedestrians are being driven out of every forum, Pune is one of the few cities that is trying to be different.
We’ve already seen commendable efforts with ITI Road and JM Road. Why can’t FC Road be any different? Sure, there are areas of improvement. Shouldn’t they simultaneously increase public transport? Absolutely. Shouldn’t they first ban on-street parking?
Definitely. All of these are good questions to ask. But I do not believe they merit an overarching cynicism of the project. The starting premise cannot be that this project is wrong, because these questions are not addressed.
Perhaps, a better framing is, how can this project be made even better by addressing these issues.
#All views expressed in this article are those of the author and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to them.
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