Thursday, December 12, 2013

How many zebra crossings did you drive/ride over today?

Almost exactly two decades ago I had purchased a two-wheeler that I used for commuting between office and home, even if not regularly. It was a 28 km long trip one way and had 30 plus traffic signals (before the days of frequent flyovers and interchanges).For the first few times, I could remember at how many signals I had to stop on a particular day. But, as I got used to this commute, the traffic signals really melded into the background.
I recall this as I watch early morning (7:15 AM) every day, quite haplessly as I wait to cross a busy road at a zebra crossing to catch my office bus. The vehicle traffic – assorted across the hierarchy – is always unrelenting, for the simple fact that the crossing is in the middle of nowhere. What I mean is the signals are at least 500 m away on one side and about 2 km on the other. For me, it is almost like watching a marathon race somewhere in the middle of the race distance, a constant stream of runners of varying pace!
Zebra crossings do not impinge on the consciousness of vehicle drivers, in Delhi and I suspect in most cities across this unfair land of ours. You can test it out upon yourself. How many zebra crossings did you drive/ride over today? You will not be able to tell, I guarantee. Pedestrians are so down market. Why should you, in your Bimmer SUV, or even a Tata Nano, worry about them?
At the place where I cross the road, it is 3 lanes wide with perhaps a lane and a half wide unmarked bus bay (the zebra crossing actually ends in the middle of a DTC bus shelter, and I had posted on this earlier).
Over the past few days I have counted the number of vehicles that cross the zebra marking per minute. I found out from some experts on traffic the PCU (Passenger Car Unit) equivalent of two-wheelers and buses – half and three, respectively. That is, it takes two two-wheelers to make up a passenger car (two and four wheels, factor of two, simple math after all! But, don’t do this for buses!).
Now, it comes out, averaging over more than a dozen observations around the same time at the location, about 60 PCUs cross the control section, the zebra crossing, in a minute. That leaves 20 PCUs per lane per minute. That is, on average, 3 seconds per lane per vehicle. And, the cars zip at nothing less than 60 kmph. It is within three seconds with cars bearing down upon you at 60 kmph you dare to cross the road.
Fortunately, though the signal is more than half a kilometer away, there are brief traffic-free time intervals, once every three to four minutes, which the pedestrians avail to cross the road. Even then one has to hurry across the three lanes plus the bus bay. It is unsafety of the most sever kind the pedestrians are exposed to. And, remember, this is the time school kids, luckily with their parents in tow, rush to catch their buses. It is only the parental factor that keeps accidents rates as low as they are! Further, I conclude that our pedestrians have been given a double dose of survival instincts, to weave themselves between fast moving vehicles!
With these thoughts coursing through my mind, I approached a good friend of mine who is into all these traffic things. She initially said that the only option is for the pedestrians to go over to the signal, a good 500 meters away, and cross the road. It perhaps did not occur to her zebra stripes on the road indicate a higher level of right of way (greater than zero) along them for the pedestrians rather than across them for vehicles. Or, more probably, she realized that zebra crossings are not effective at all as a traffic control measure.
I also pointed out adding another 500 m (one way) to the morning trek will tax the parents and also add to the time burden. Our discussion now stands paused at the stage. I intend to pursue the matter further with her, all in the cause of road users other than vehicles.
Pedestrians are also to share in the blame. It is, at least in some case, a chicken and egg problem. At the bus stop and zebra crossing highlighted here, people, wait on the carriageway for the buses; one might say this is because buses do not pull in neatly towards the bus shelter, heavily and ironically marked “Handicap Friendly”. Which came first? The indiscipline of bus passengers or bus drivers? Can’t say. But, a solution has to be found. And, zebra crossings must be a part of the solution set.
Only when a solution is found and implemented, the title question can be answered.

Raghuram Ekambaram

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