Documenting (UN)Safe!! Access in Bangalore

A few days back, I happened to watch Bangalore Days, a Malayalam movie that was released sometime last year. I really loved the movie, the characterizations and how one could relate to them, in one relationship plane or another. Of course there was something that bothered me but I couldn’t put my finger on it. So I went about my regular routine and then suddenly I had my “AHA” moment.

One of the protagonists, RJ Sarah (Parvathy) lives in the Yelahanka area in Bangalore and is a paraplegic who moves around with the assistance of a wheelchair. She uses the KIA – airport bound BMTC buses to and fro to work and home and gives motivational talks to school kids, meets friends out for coffee and is pretty much on her own. Pretty unbelievable, isn’t it? That too in Bangalore? Where you wonder, this Bangalore, these wonderful neighborhoods they show in the movie is, where someone disabled is able to move around on their own, when to cross a road, you have to hold your breath and do some moonwalks, coupled with a dash and a jump across the street, making you wish you had one of those invisible strings that just propelled you from one end of the street to another.

Yeah, yeah, I hear what you are thinking. Hey Laks, it is a movie, the person who played RJ Sarah is actually not a paraplegic and she had to use the wheelchair only in some shots. In most cases, she is only using it as a chair. And did they not have a scene where Aju (Dulquer) watches Sarah waiting patiently in the bus stop, after a couple of buses don’t stop and then jumps in front of the KIA bus so that Sarah can get in? Did that scene not depict the insensitivity of the drivers? Yes, I agree but this scene was just the tip of the iceberg, the one that topples the Titanic.

As a public transit user and a person who tries to walk everywhere, the realist (and the cynic) in me knows that how difficult it is for someone to get around in Bangalore. Drivers of both public transit and private vehicles are not sensitized enough to think about other road users. They think that they rule the road and this influences their driving practices. Our existing infrastructure only encourages and fuels these unsafe and insensitive driving practices. And if I find it extremely frustrating and annoying, imagine the plight of someone who needs assistance. I am not only talking about the physically challenged but also kids, young parents with kids, bags and strollers, older people with several issues in their legs, and someone who is temporarily injured.

Even in areas where there is some infrastructure, such as sidewalks, you can observe the issues with safe access – the rampant encroachment by our wonderful 2-wheelers and people who use it as parking spaces and of course the amazing design. In most instances, sidewalks are nothing but covered stormwater drains. And I am not even going to start talking about disabled friendly-access provisions in our public infrastructure and our buildings – both public and private. Several campaigns, articles and research highlight the lack of safe access in Bangalore (I have highlighted some key research and articles at the end of the post) and also present solutions and interventions to address these problems. A Times of India article from 1998 highlights the lack of safe and universal access to pedestrians and sidewalk users, including those needing wheelchair assistance. Its more a decade and a half and the state of infrastructure and attitude of our fellow road users is not any better.If anything, it is worse and it’s like we do not matter and we don’t exist.

I went around Bangalore, armed with my camera to document the issues that prevent safe access in Bangalore. Since a picture is worth a 1000 words, and I have several, here is my proof:

Boulevard of Broken Walks 

Set to the Tunes of Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Green Day)

I walk (or try to) a busy road

If one can actually call it a road

With several bumps and holes

I find it frustrating to walk smoothly

I walk this busy street

With vehicles and encroachments galore

Where the biker swears at me

When he is on the wrong side of the road

I try

I try

I try to walk along

I try….

The light pole that comes out of nowhere

The open drains with the cover nowhere in sight

The almost jump that I have to make

To get down from the sidewalk

The sharp rocks that poke me

I am not even going to sing about the other sorts of horrors that I face

Sometimes I wish someone out there will see these issues
‘Til then I walk frustrated

Ouch- Ouch, Ouch- Ouch, Ouch- Ouch, Ouch- Ouch,
Oooouchhhhh

Read between the lines
Of what’s fucked up and what’s not alright
Check my vital signs
To know I’m still alive and I walk frustrated

I walk or I try to
I walk or I try to

I walk a…

Ouch- Ouch, Ouch- Ouch, Ouch- Ouch, Ouch- Ouch,
Oooouchhhh

As someone who works in this space and who has lost a dear friend to the lack of safe access, I am able to observe the positive changes, however insignificant towards improving safe access. But we still have a really long way to go. I also understand that we constantly compare our infrastructure with that of the developed countries, USA for instance. As Madhav Pai(@madpai) pointed out at the launch of Safe Access Manual on Saturday, January 31st,  we forget that the USA also grappled with these issues in the 1950’s/60’s and 70’s, as highlighted in Jane Jacobs ‘s, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. And it took them a long time to get over these issues and to embrace safe and sustainable mobility. Of course, we have the advantage of learning from their mistakes and design and plan for safe movement and access rather than quick movement but until we esp. decision makers – the implementors, the regulators and the facilitators, remember that “everyone is a pedestrian and we all walk“, there is no solution in sight. As Gil Penalosa says, “provide the infrastructure to access and fully enjoy public spaces, and they will come.”

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

How do we create cities in which both 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds can move about safely and enjoyably? “We have to stop building cities as if everyone is 30 years-old and athletic.” ~Gil Penalosa

Selected articles and research:

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Donna says:

    I remember wondering about this when I was in Bangalore Lakshmi! Having a sister in a wheelchair I’m fairly conscious of accessibility issues and I was dismayed at the caved in footpaths when I was walking around. Such a barrier for those with mobility challenges being able to participate in society. A huge problem!

    1. Completely agree with you!

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