A study of sidewalks in thyagaraja nagar chennai india
An Ethnographic study of Sidewalks in ThyagarajaNagar, Chennai
Chennai is one of India’s most rapidly expanding cities. It also has a large vehicular population which is
expanding at an increasing rate. More vehicles on streets mean lesser space for the pedestrians. Most of
the roads in Chennai lack pedestrian friendly features with little thought given to their safety,
convenience and numbers. The volume of vehicles has not yet reached the levels seen in the developed
world (or even the numbers seen in Delhi) but is a source of problem even with now. The area was
originally predominantly residential in nature but has fast transformed into very busy commercial hub of
the city. This has significantly affected urban amenities, land use, nature of transportation and services.
Single storey shops of yesteryears have now given way to multistory buildings with little change in other
infrastructure. Much of the development and building seems to have occurred without any
comprehensive planning. Though much of the large commercial development has taken place on the
RanganathanStreetandUsman Street,ithas spreadto small roadsand by lanesalso.
In recent years a flyover has been constructed on the Ranganathan Street. This was taken away a large
number of vehicles away from the street, which (did not intend to shop) interfered with pedestrian
movement. The condition of the road beneath the flyover and the services and facilities for pedestrians
of the largeststorespresentin
Jane Jacobs said “Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs.
Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets.” A very large number of people who use roads are
pedestrians and walking as a mode accounts for maximum road trips. If a road has pedestrian friendly
features then it is more likely to be used by them. These features could be facilities, safety, ease of
access, how street engages them, how street satisfies their main purpose of travel etc. If proper
pedestrian spaces are created then it improves circulation of people. Streets make people come out of
the cocoon of personal vehiclesandengage withthe surroundings.
This is especially true for shopping areas like Thyagaraj Nagar. The area needs high volumes of eager
shoppers and so should be safe. There are lots of traditional sari andjewelers on its streets. People carry
large amounts of money, wear expensive jewellary and clothes. The shoppers do not necessarily come
straight to one shop to do all the purchase and then simply go back to their homes. They move along the
entire street and check out what each store has to offer. Thyagaraj Nagar attracts It attracts large
number of shoppers not just from neighborhoods in and around Chennai but also from neighboring
Lack of vehiclesgenerallymeansthat
people use the entire road.More
due to numbers.
EnteringThyagaraj Nagar fromthe
Bus Standside.Thispicture isof a
temple presentrightinthe beginning.
As it is home to a large number of traditional jeweler and sari stores, people do shopping for wedding
ceremonies here. And given certain specific Indian social characteristics, the volume of shopping done
by a single shopper is high. This makes it necessary for them to move from shop to shop looking for
something which perfectly fits their purpose suites their taste, purchasing power and need. Sometimes
entire familiesshoptogetherandmove aroundthe shops.
In addition to these stores there are large number of hawkers and other shopkeepers. They keep the
street noisy and busy. They sometimes create crowd clusters, where people stop by and check their
wares. These hawkers exist harmoniously with the formal stores and some of them are actually
complimentary. Sometimes the entire sidewalk is occupied by the goods, lampposts, covering sheets,
Road side shopkeeperssell theirstuff
People walkandjostle throughother
and the sounds.
The crowds are also engaged by the aesthetics of the buildings, their design, their employees, and
individual sellers who do not occupy any space but hawk their wares by moving between the crowds.
Given the nature of the street and the kind of shopping that people do walking is the ideal way to
explore andappreciate the area.
The movement of people is sometimes hampered by gaping potholes. This is especially problematic
after the rains when they are water logged and as people try to avoid walking into them it effectively
reduces the total area available for walking. These potholes paint a very dismal picture of the facilities
available to these large numbers of side-walkers. They take away the precious space which has already
The Waterlogged potholes are impediments to pedestrians
The new flyover has taken away some of the vehicles from the old road. But sometimes the vehicles
have to use the old road, and that creates chaos as there is no segregation of vehicles from pedestrians.
Since the space is quite limited ideally there should be user charge whenever someone brings a vehicle
into the reduced space. But since it does not happen, people bring their vehicles tearing in through the
crowds and then park them either on the roads or in the underground parking belonging to stores,
whenevertheyhave some space available.
Another interesting thing to be noted is the human controlled traffic management system that operates
right at the start of south Ranganathan Street near the bus stand and then at the place where the
flyover begins its ascent, in front of Saravana Stores. There are no traffic lights and only police personal
present usually direct the behavior of crowds, instead of directing the traffic. That task is managed by an
unwritten and unspoken contract between the vehicles and the walkers. When there is a vehicular flow,
people do not cross the road. They wait and slowly walkers and families collect up. They then grow up
into a critical mass of 20-25 people. Unconsciously they distribute themselves into a line and then
attempt to slowly walk into the road. Similar attempts are made by the People present on the other side
of the road. Vehicles soon start noticing this crowd standing on both sides attempting to cross the road.
Some of themstart slowingdown,andthenone of themwill stop.
As soon as one vehicle stops, people quickly conquer the road space and move. Suddenly a mass of
people floods upon the road and vehicular traffic is bought to a halt. People on the other areas of road,
who also need to cross the road, do not attempt this at any given point of the road. They observe the
point where the crowd is collecting and then walk up to that point. Once most of the crowds have
crossed, and it thins out vehicles slowly start moving again. The crowd is now a minority as vehicles have
piled one behind the other and are growingimpatient. The crowd hands back the conquered space back
to the vehicles, and people start to wait for that critical mass to build again. All this while there is no
effort by the policemen to regulate the flow. They just allow it happen by its own. They keep an eye on
the crowd behavior and maintaining general law order, which is necessary considering the large number
of shoppers. Policemenare keenertowatchpotential pickpocketsandchainsnatchers.
The traffic and the crowd become indistinguishable from each other.
The construction of a new flyover has freed some space right underneath it. As the vehicles moved up,
the middle of the erstwhile road space has been occupied by hawkers. Some of it is used for parking
purposesbythe store workers,mostof thembeingcycles.
There is no architectural design to the side walk and it is irregular, breaking at some pints and then
beginning once again without a ramp. There is no effort to provide some amenities to pedestrians. Due
to congestion there is no space left for simple sitting areas with chairs, benches or steps where one can
have a break. Families are found resting at the steps of the stores after hours of tiring shopping, or else
theytake refuge inmanyrestaurantspresentinthe area.
There are only two traffic control booths (one of whichis present right opposite the Nalli showroom and
works without a traffic light), no litter bins, road signs, signboards, area map boards, loudspeakers,
clocks, ATMs (which is surprising as this is a busy commercial area, the only ATM was present in one of
the arterial lanes). The area and the stores are very well lit, but there are still patches of darkness and
they call for proper lightning that can enhance the beauty of the pedestrian space. The area also does
not have any signage systemorlandscaping.
The busy and congested nature of the road does not leave much space for the sidewalk, as it is
essentially reduced to only 2-3 feet. Thankfully, given Chennai and India's culture in general the place is
still mercifully free from any grand statue of political or social personality. The stores and their beautiful
decoration make the area beautiful but works of art like color surfaces, mosaics, frescoes etc can make
the streetmore beautiful.
The importance of pedestrians for an urban setting has been appreciated and there is conscious effort
to create ‘livable’ streets, streets that contribute to the life of city. Keeping in mind Jane Jacobs
description of streets and sidewalks as places which do not just connect but which contribute to public
life, we can see that T Nagar does have some of those. Although in terms of physical infrastructure it
may not live up to the requirement, but it manages to provide security to very large number of
strangers. Nobody feels lonely or insecure in the thriving market. Its cultural and commercial
importance hasremainedundiminishedevenwiththe rise of othercommercial centersinthe city.