Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
In India’s most lethal city for traffic-related deaths, an urban designer/artist is fighting for walkability and safety.
Colonial rule in India ended in 1947, but one man’s grip over the lives of the nation’s residents lingers, at least in Delhi. Edwardian architect Edwin Lutyens planned the imperial capital of the British empire with wide avenues, roundabouts, and zones for sprawling bungalows. The modern result: India’s more car-intensive city.
Plans to make the Indian capital a more democratic space failed post-independence. Today, pockets of density exist in gated middle and upper middle class neighborhoods around retail hotspots, haphazardly developed neighborhoods in the older, poorer parts of the city, and of course, slums. But sidewalks, where they exist, are narrow and decrepit, and border vacuums abound. The sprawling city of 11 million boasts the largest number of private cars in India, and if you don’t have one, getting around can try your safety and health. It’s really not a coincidence that Delhi tops the national list in traffic fatalities, with a staggering 1622 deaths in 2015.*
Delhi is the most glaring example of a common urban condition in India—one that is increasingly coming to the surface through citizen-led campaigns to promote walkability, think tank led-Vision Zero initiatives, and even some legislative efforts. But conversation about remaking road infrastructure, in particular, has just not been loud enough, according to Nikhil Chaudhary, an urban designer with World Resources Institute India, an organization leading some of the discussion about walkability. “Having worked extensively with city authorities, it’s been an uphill climb to convince them to move away from car-oriented design and planning,” he tells CityLab via email. “I believe, it is only when citizens join the dialogue, does problem solving gain momentum.” To publicize the issue, Chaudhary has been using his other talent: making comics.
And his latest is in the form of a short film about the rise of India’s pedestrians. In it, common folks tower over a city, Godzilla-like, sweeping aside the cars, and reclaiming urban space. The film is the third in a three-part series. (Check out part one and two of Chaudhary’s Facebook page.) “The binding theme is that the administrative victim-blaming of pedestrians or even motorists must stop,” Chaudhary says. “Civic infrastructure must be looked at as much as a cause of crashes amongst others. As an urban designer, nothing drives me more than the fact that the urban built environment can literally save lives.”
Chaudhary is hopeful that the videos will help drive that point home, in India and elsewhere. “Change is a painfully slow process,” he says. “Art that is moving can go a long way in accelerating it.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the number of traffic fatalities in Delhi.