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Cities are transforming in many ways as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A great number of people changed their lifestyles during the pandemic and turned to walking and cycling, and the government changed how transport can be accessed. Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) initiated different challenges like Streets for People Challenge, Cycles4Change Challenge in response to COVID-19 to promote walking and cycling and to reimagine streets as public spaces through the lens of economic regeneration, safety, and child-friendly interventions. These initiatives were undertaken in consultation with stakeholders and citizens.
With the increasing number of pedestrians and cyclists (the most vulnerable of road users), concerns about their safety is coming to the forefront. More than 2.3 lakh people die in road crashes in India every year and more than half of these are among vulnerable road users. This constitutes 11% of global road traffic deaths. Traditionally, this issue in India has been addressed by raising awareness only. A more effective strategy, however, is to induce systemic change that is driven by public participation.
Over the last decade, WRI India, through its various programs, has come up with different methods in their street design initiatives to make them streets universally accessible and safe. Besides a series of public meetings to inform people, WRI India has seen engagement as a way for stakeholders (users, policy makers and policy implementors) to share responsibility while realizing that when all three stakeholders understand the issue clearly and take decisions together, the process is smoother.
As part of the Safer Commute for School Children project in Rohtak, Haryana, started in 2018, focus group discussions with the students, parents and teachers were conducted with five partner schools of Rohtak. The intention of the discussion was to gather observations, feedback, interpretation and anecdotes around road safety. To enhance child road safety, WRI India acknowledged children as specialists through a design workshop organized in 2019 with 100 students (aged between 12-17 years). The workshop aimed at engaging school children to pick desired street features, hence creating a platform where children could make street design choices, which was further recommended to the government.
The agencies responsible for road safety often lack personnel with professional training in road safety. Capacity building (CB) must be seen as a process to strengthen and maintain the capabilities to set and achieve road safety objectives over time. As part of the Safer Commute for School Children project in Rohtak CB workshops with municipal engineers were conducted in 2018-19 to strengthen the local authority’s in-house expertise of conceptualizing streets for all. Instead of a classroom-type workshop, the participants were introduced to global practices by taking them to critical intersections close to the venue of the workshop. This provided an opportunity for them to better understand the latest practices and how to implement them on ground.
While engineers are responsible for providing safe infrastructure, police finally enforce the rule of law in a city. They are, however, seldom a part of any discussion on road design. A combined CB workshop was organized in 2019 to engage with 12 municipal engineers and 15 traffic police of Rohtak district. The purpose of this workshop was to create a platform for cross-learning and developing a coherent engineering and traffic management strategy for children’s commute in the city.
The workshops with students and city officials were independent events conducted to achieve the same goal—creating safer street design for children. To bring together all stakeholders on one platform, WRI India initiated a new workshop format called Walk-Shop, a portmanteau of Walking Workshop in 2019. It was jointly organized with Gurugram Municipal Corporation, Raahgiri Foundation and school children, Gurugram. School children walked with adults in groups around the participating school. Each group subsequently presented their observations and concerns to MCG’s chief engineer, who joined the conversation to review the groups’ recommendations. The exercise helped officials understand streets from a child’s perspective and bring a sense of ownership to children, hence, bridging the gap between children and officials.
Design trials through tactical urbanism is another tool to engage all stakeholders in the process. It is a quick and economical way to communicate potential change to road geometry to the users and gather their support. WRI India, in the past two years, has piloted several trial interventions at critical intersections of Rohtak, Gurugram, Panchkula and Kaithal. The motorized and non-motorized traffic flows are studied at pilot locations for a minimum of 15 days. Pre- and post-trial surveys and conflict studies were conducted with various stakeholders such as residents, officials, traffic police. Design changes were made wherever required after the detail designs had been prepared.
Raahgiri has also been a popular platform to engage people and make them aware of issues of social importance, such as health, environment, education, etc. Government and NGOs have been utilizing this platform to reach out and sensitize citizens on socially relevant issues. Through activities like street plays, customized games, photo-walls, etc., this platform has been used for sensitizing the community about the need to prioritize safety of children on roads in Rohtak. These collaborated efforts have helped create a bond between civil society, government bodies, and citizens.
WRI’s approach to engage with varied age groups augments the government’s approach in order to improve road safety. And, the benefits of the engagement both come from and go directly back to the people who need them the most and who can make their best use. City design decisions affect everyone, and people should hold the lever of control. They should be able to participate and exercise choice—an informed choice.
Views expressed here are the authors’ own.