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India's Shared Streets


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By Amit C. Price Patel AIA AICP LEED AP

Last year I traveled with my family to the western part of India. We saw some incredible sites—ancient and new, urban and rural—but the most noteworthy to me were the streets, and their capacity to serve so many people in different modes of transportation.

The current urban-design movement to create complete and shared streets can already be found in action in India. Each street/road/alley serves multiple modes of transportation, be it bus, motorcycle, bicycle, car, rickshaw, bullock cart, transport trucks (with their wonderful paint jobs), pedestrians, cows and camels. They all have their place in the chaotic, yet elegant ecosystem.

Amit C. Price Patel is a former Principal at David Baker Architects.

Mumbai Street Traffic from David Baker Architects on Vimeo.

 
Two strategies in particular are interesting: 
 

Slowly Slowly

Since there are so many crossing paths of travel along the streets, everyone has to move pretty carefully to avoid accidents. It’s slower than driving through a typical city in the U.S., but the slower speed means there is a lot of capacity on the road. An area of street can hold more moving people going slowly than it can just a few cars moving quickly.

It’s a lot like William Whyte’s observation in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: Pedestrians moving in different directions in a public plaza rarely, if ever, collide with each other since they’re moving slowly and being watchful. This slow-street system is not necessarily good for a driver trying to get across town, but it's great for kids riding their bikes to school. Slower streets are inherently more equitable streets.

Micro-Lanes

The traditional idea of driving lanes is more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule in India. Sidewalks are often a work in progess or packed with merchandise, so the roadway is a better option for pedestrians. Each lane is organically subdivided into micro-lanes, with faster traffic at the far right (India being a left-hand-drive culture), slower vehicles in the road center, and everyone else on the edge.

A two-lane road becomes a six-plus-lane road. In this way, the road section and the public right-of-way remain relatively narrow, leaving more space for homes and shops (micro-retail and maker spaces galore!). The fact that trucks, cars, and most other vehicles are more compact than in the west (with very few gigantic SUV’s) also increase road capacity.

While segregating pedestrians on sidewalks, bicylists in cycle tracks, and cars in driving lanes may makes sense from a transportation level of service viewpoint, there are real physical space and urban vibrancy consequences resulting from this strategy.

Horn OK: India's trucks are full of color and character.

While India’s street orchestration has its own logic and efficiencies, it requires a lot of attention from users to make it work. Accidents are common, but the slower speeds reduce damage.

As India continues to urbanize and densify, I hope that the good things about its streets can continue and street modernization does not only take cars into account. And for us in the West, let’s learn from India and continue to promote slower, multi-modal shared streets. And maybe a little urban chaos too.