A status message by a friend on Facebook has had me thinking for many weeks now. He wrote:
Ranchi is an amazing city. In my first 30 minutes there, two schoolchildren, one bike rider and a goat tried to kill themselves in front of my car.
I have given this a great deal of thought, and I have had to come to the conclusion that my friend’s language is disingenuous. He speaks as if the schoolchildren and the goat were actually going to commit the act that would result in death, but he’s wrong. When a car hits a pedestrian and the pedestrian dies, the car kills the pedestrian.
By no means does this automatically imply that the driver is at fault. The task of assigning fault is normative, and we as a society devise norms to assign fault when collisions occur. But that does not take anything away from the fact that the car kills the pedestrian. In such cases, the pedestrians themselves possess neither the speed nor the force to maim and kill. Only the motor vehicle has any such ability.
In my friend’s case, I can safely assume that he was not over-speeding, and that he was sufficiently in control of his vehicle. We may also assume that the pedestrians were violating traffic rules at the time. But before we dispose of the matter by placing the blame on the pedestrians, we need to look more closely into the rules themselves. Do they distribute responsibility for safety in a fair manner?
In the Indian context, pedestrians have right of way only at marked crossings but most intersections in India do not have painted crossings. Where zebra crossings exist, the pedestrian’s right-of-way is not enforced. Sometimes cities create “signal-free corridors” so that one could go miles without seeing a pedestrian crossing. Most streets have no sidewalks. In short, pedestrians are left to fend for themselves, and are responsible for their own safety. When motor vehicles bring in the risk of death, why are pedestrians given most of the responsibility of preventing it?
The first motor car arrived at the turn of the 20th century. Almost immediately, traffic deaths started creating an uproar in the cities of America and Europe. Peter Norton gives a detailed account of the politics of traffic management that followed the growth of the automobile industry in the United States. (Here’s my review of Norton’s book) Norton writes that “before the city could be physically reconstructed for the sake of motorists, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where automobiles unquestionably belong”. In short, the rules of the game had to be changed in order to make way for automobiles on city streets.
Norton writes about how the automobile lobby promoted rules that favoured motorists. The term “jaywalking” was introduced at this time, and pedestrians who cross mid-block were caricatured as being unsophistacted and boorish. Children were taught in school to cross only at marked crossings, and they were told that they had equal responsibility in preventing accidents.
It occurs to me that such propaganda bears remarkable similarity to the notion of the “white man’s burden” that European colonizers used to justify their tyranny. The caricatures of jaywalking pedestrians correspond to early European prejudices about oriental people. In the meanwhile, streets that were used for several millennia by pedestrians and other street people (street vendors, for instance) were effectively invaded by automobiles. Rules advantageous to the colonizers were then enforced as a way of “civilizing” the “uncivilized”.
My friend’s comment wouldn’t bother me as much, if it wasn’t representative of official government policy in India. For instance, I have previously written that the skywalks in Mumbai’s railway stations were built not to provide safe walking conditions for pedestrians – that is not possible unless there are skywalks on every street – but to make space for motor vehicles on the busiest pedestrian corridors. These skywalks are not convenient for most pedestrians – as convincingly demonstrated by Vig Krishnamurthy of MIT in this report. Studying the Bandra skywalk, he shows that most pedestrians would suffer a time penalty by using the skywalk. As a result, only 32% of the commuters using the Bandra station use the skywalk to access it. Further, it is found that the shorter arm of the skywalk, where no major highway crossing is involved, is used the most.
The latest survey of skywalk usage commissioned by the MMRDA in response to the Chief Minister’s criticism confirms the previous study. MMRDA found that 1.2 million trips were made on the skywalks each day. However, considering that 7 million trips are made in the Mumbai suburban rail system (which would result in 14 million walk trips entering and leaving railway stations), it would be fair to conclude that not one of the 35 skywalks contributes significantly to the safety and comfort of pedestrians.
And yet, MMRDA’s Additional Commissioner Ashwini Bhide told reporters that “the numbers (of pedestrians) were bound to increase as more civic sense prevailed.” In other words, pedestrians, by asserting their right to use streets and by denying motorists speedy passage, are violating their civic duties. “Civilization”, according to Bhide, consists of submitting to demands that pedestrians get out of the way.
The analogy between the tactics adopted by European colonizers and the tactics of motordom can be extended even further. One of the ways by which the colonizers gain power over the colonized is by using divisive tactics. For example, The skywalk lobby led by Ms. Bhide tried to sell the skywalks as an effort to create space in lieu of encroachments by street vendors, thereby pitting street vendors against pedestrians. Street vendors are service-providers and share a strong symbiotic relationship with pedestrians, but many pedestrian advocates fall right into the trap by demanding relocation of street vendors instead. Ashok Datar, ostensibly furthering the cause of pedestrian comfort, argues in favour of a “hawker Plaza to resite existing hawkers in a compulsory manner … thus freeing the valuable road space for traffic purposes”.
Alternatives exist to accommodate the needs of both hawkers and walkers, but they involve taking on the might of motordom. In my post on skywalks, I had suggested that the area around the Mulund station be closed for personal vehicles and space be created at-grade for pedestrians, street vendors, paratransit and buses. Vig Krishnamurthy offers a similar proposal for the Bandra station. These solutions restore the street’s primary function as a public space, while also making sufficient allowances for efficient and safe public transport.
The Indian National Movement fought British colonialism by instilling pride in our common heritage. In the face of motordom’s invasion of Indian streets, street people – pedestrians, street vendors, pavement dwellers, and lovers of gully cricket – need to unite to do the same. A fitting response would be to assert that street people do not need lessons in civilization from people who bring killer machines into our public spaces.