On Being a Pedestrian in Chennai

It’s Day 3 in Chennai, and I’m on information overload. But blog posts needn’t be! I’m going to try to break things down into bite-sized pieces, starting with the thing I’ve been doing most of: Walking.

Walking in Chennai, to put it mildly, is a challenge. It came in dead last on a ranking of Asian cities for their walkable qualities, on account of the lack of pedestrian footpaths and abysmal traffic. What sidewalks do exist are often uneven or broken, and splotched with feces, dead rats, and humans lying prone. Bicycles, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, cars, and massive buses rocket through the streets with little regard for those on two legs; stoplights are either non-functional or ignored. I try not to open my eyes too wide, even at the most astonishing sights; the rush of diesel fumes can burn. It takes most of my mental capacity simply to focus on moving forward without getting flattened, which I haven’t yet witnessed, though fatalities happen all the time. (One upside: The closer you cut it with passing vehicles, the more you benefit from the breeze of their passing.)

At the same time, though, people walk. Everywhere. In American cities and suburbs, when roads don’t at least have shoulders, people tend to avoid them. In Chennai, there is no street where even old people, women, and children can’t be seen hustling on their way. The best way to do it is in groups, or at least by attaching yourself to a group: When a critical mass of people builds up on a median in the middle of the road, the traffic is forced to flow around them. On truly impassable roads, the Corporation of Chennai has sometimes installed underpasses, but I’d take my chances on the surface over the smell and darkness underground. The latest idea is skywalks, but it seems that natives might make the same choice, if faced with the prospect of climbing several stories up just to cross the street.

The city makes some provision for people walking around the giant Metro rail construction sites.

To avoid the eye-level unpleasantness, those of modest means may hail an auto-rickshaw, one of the buzzy two-seater mini-taxis that saturate the city. I haven’t done much of that yet—understanding the city on a granular level, and how things relate to each other in space, is still only possible on foot.

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