Road Design: What India’s Urban Centres Can Do To Improve Road Safety
When a stretch of road connecting Delhi’s Sarai Kale Khan with Ashram was opened to commuters in 2008, it was quickly labeled as an accident-prone spot. The problem wasn’t over speeding or anything else to do with the drivers; the very design of this brand new road was flawed.
The loop’s radius was wrong, recalls Kanika Kalra, an urban transport expert with the Indian Institute of Urban Transport (IUT), “The thing was that vehicles turning at a high speed on the loop would collide because the radius did not give them enough space. Either the calculations made at the design stage were incorrect or its implementation went wrong.”
The issue was eventually rectified by adding rumble strips on the stretch. However, this has led to perpetual congestion, defeating the original aim of creating a high mobility road.
Designing urban roads is a challenging and complex affair because of the sheer number of factors that need to be considered. The traffic that uses these roads is incredibly heterogeneous. There are cars, motorbikes, autos and cycles, all of which move at different speeds along with pedestrians.
In accommodating and planning for all these users is exactly where the problem with road designs in India often begins.
“Our systems to ensure that the designs and construction process prioritise road safety are inadequate. We need to have regular and independent safety audits right from the stages of conceptualising, designing and constructing roads to their operation,” says Dr. Sewa Ram, Professor of Transport Planning, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.
Currently, road safety audits are not mandatory in India and there is no independent body tasked with mapping risks on roads. However, the importance of such exercises is slowly being recognised and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has earmarked ₹600 crore for the correction of black spots (places with a high number of recorded road accidents), the execution of road safety audits and other activities related to road safety.
Failure To Accommodate Everyone
Asides from the large gap in safety audits, the biggest issue on urban roads is that they are not planned to accommodate or ensure safe mobility for everyone, according to experts.
“The problem is that many times road engineers are trying to apply highway designs to urban roads or they are only looking at the mobility of larger vehicles,” says Kanika Kalra.
A look at most roads in most Indian cities and towns reflects this approach—vehicles are not segregated, footpaths don’t exist and when they do, they are either too small or are encroached by hawkers, trees or parked vehicles. Kalra believes that not taking these factors and providing space from them at consideration at the design stage has created chaos on the roads and puts everyone using them at risk.
In 2012, the Institute of Urban Transport which comes under the Ministry of Urban Planning had issued a five-part set of guidelines for the design of urban roads. These cover road cross sections, intersections, road markings, sinages and traffic calming methods. Despite this, old and outdated codes of urban road design continue to be used in most part of the country, says Kalra.
While designing roads, pedestrians are often completely ignored. Street Design Guidelines adopted by the Delhi Development Authority in 2009 had identified missing sidewalks, inappropriate curb heights, inadequate space for pedestrians and infrequent road crossings as common issues.
Besides their infrequently availability, the approach taken to constructing pedestrian crossings is often wrong, according to Dr. Ram.
“We need surface crossings for people. If you look at the behaviour of pedestrians, they are looking for the fastest and shortest way to cross the road. They are unlikely to take overhead pedestrian passes or underground subways,” he explains, “This is why despite having overhead crossings you will often find people making dangerous crossings across roads. In the case of underground subways, people won’t take that unless the other end is visible. They are dingy and seem unsafe to many, so while planning these are concerns that should be considered.”
Intersections or junctions are points in towns and cities with the highest possibility of conflict due to the presence of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians converging and crossing paths. What makes collisions at intersections deadly is that the vehicles are often moving at high speeds and at 90-degree angles to each other which make the impact worse.
Dr. Ram estimates that around 33 per cent of accidents in urban areas occur at intersections.
“While designing an intersection a lot of things need to be considered—speed management, the turning radius for vehicles , waiting lanes, the visibility of traffic coming from all sides, etc. These are often not taken into account,” he says.
Roundabouts are widely accepted as easily implementable and highly effective means of regulating traffic and making intersections safer. Research undertaken by the Washington State Department of Transportation has estimated that the presence of runabouts contributed to a 37 per cent decline in collisions.
The roundabouts in Lutyens’ Delhi are a great example of well-designed and executed, according to Dr. Ram.
“Often we have good roundabouts, but then landscaping is done on them or structures are erected which blocks the visibility. This is a very poor practice which has been widely adopted. It should be ensured that have structures that cross a certain height,” he says.
Other problems that plague intersections, according to Kalra, include the fact that bus stops are often placed too close to them and the enforcement of rules not allowing hawkers and vehicles to stand near these is poor. She suggests that a radius of 100 metres should be declared as “zero tolerance zones for such activities”.
“All these practices must be standardised and included in the codes for road planning and design,” she says, adding that if cities began conducting regular safety audits and if the Indian Roads Congress updated their design codes, it could make a huge difference in the country’s approach to road safety.