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Streets for people in India: Shreya Gadepalli

‘Complete Streets’ are spreading rapidly in India, according to Shreya Gadepalli of ITDP India, who I interviewed for Episode 2 of the Reinventing Transport podcast.  Chennai and Pune, in particular, are improving conditions for people on foot, on bicycles and in buses. We spoke about India but her comments are relevant internationally.

Highlights from our conversation are below, followed by links to relevant documents and more detail about Shreya herself.  Right at the end you can read a full transcript.

To listen use the player below OR click here OR search for "Reinventing Transport" in your podcast app OR scroll to the bottom to watch the Youtube video version. 

The need for complete street improvements in India is enormous and urgent.

“Less than one percent of streets in urban India actually have footpaths. There is almost no infrastructure for cycling and the majority of space is hogged by personal motor vehicles even though they account for less than a quarter of all trips made”, said Shreya.

The space inefficiency of cars makes them seem more important than they really are. When Shreya asks people in India what proportion of city-dwellers have access to cars, many guess 50%. The real answer is more like 5%.

ITDP's Guidance on Street Design

We will see below that changes have been coming to the streets of several Indian cities.

One key to current progress was the information and guidance in ITDP's Better Streets Better Cities guide for street design in Indian cities, published in 2011.

It was a big step and helped spark interest  across India in more equitable street designs and led to ITDP India street design efforts in about 20 cities.

Shreya pointed to Chennai and Pune especially.

Chennai's streets changes

Shreya reports that Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, has became the first Indian city to adopt a policy for streets that makes non-motorized transportation its top priority, including in funding.

Chennai also now has ambitious goals to make the city's roads much safer. They are now very dangerous.

Nearly 60 kilometers of streets have already been retrofitted with better walking and cycling environments and better footpaths.  Another 100 kilometers are currently being redesigned. The goal is to eventually redesign about 500 kilometers of "bus-route roads" so that all streets with a bus service will have a better walking environment.

Chennai is also developing a detailed plan for a Bus Rapid Transit system to complement its existing rail and Metro.

I asked how such ambitious plans had been politically possible, given the bad experience of some Indian cities with reallocating space on the roads (Delhi's BRT comes to mind).

Shreya said that there has certainly been opposition. But both leadership and broad coalition building made the difference:

  • leadership from both previous and current Commissioners of the city
  • cooperation with the local university, whose academics conducted in-depth training for about 90 city engineers on how to plan, design, and implement streets for all
  • support from local urban designers and architects
  • engagement with resident associations and other community groups, 
  • an effort to educated and engage with the media.

Pune streets

Coalition building has also been crucial in Pune, Maharashtra, reports Shreya.

ITDP made common cause  various other local civil society organizations, with local media groups, and supportive people in the Municipal Corporation, which was also fortunate to have had progressive leadership.

As a result, Pune is the first Indian city to have street design guidelines of its own.

Like Chennai, Pune has also made pedestrians and cyclists a high policy priority and even has a new dedicated municipal cell for bicycle and street design planning.

Pune is currently retrofitting about 125 kilometers of streets. Some of the early pilots are now the best quality walking and cycling environments in India so far.

Drawing some lessons

What can we learn from such momentum, which is spreading further to other cities in Tamil Nadu, and to Bangalore and to other cities?

I asked Shreya to elaborate on the interesting combination of technical advice and political organizing seen in Chennai and Pune.

On the technical side, she emphasized data. On mustering the evidence on what best to do and why. Data helps reveal the importance of the pedestrians, cyclists bus users who are strangely invisible to many policy makers (somehow hidden in plain view).

Then join forces, she urged, in a community effort so that urban designers, advocates, neighborhood associations, everybody, come together and demand streets which are for people rather than just for cars. 

Tactical Urbanism style pilots have been an important tactic in this effort too. Shreya highlighted that temporary tactical urbanism helped make a case for wider footpaths in Pune and for a transformation in Chennai of busy high street into one devoted entirely to bus right-of-way and space for walking, cycling and for public space.

Some of these ideas are in a new ITDP India publication, the Footpath Fix.

The Smart Cities Mission from the Government of India has also been a force assisting local complete streets agendas.

I asked how cities can institutionalize their progress, so that better street design and ongoing maintenance of those streets can become just standard practice.

Shreya responded that she often talks about four Cs:

  • Clarity on what needs to be done.
  • then Capital, since you need money for any action.
  • Capacity is needed for implement effectively.
  • finally, Coordination is needed between various relevant institutions.

Chennai's Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority provides an example.

We ended our conversation on an optimistic note.

I commented that, given so much still to be done and so much momentum in the wrong direction in so many cities, I was surprised to hear that Shreya was so upbeat and positive.

She is indeed optimistic that, despite the huge scale of the challenge ahead, Indian cities are now finally realizing the importance of Complete Streets. The lengthening list of good examples seems set to inspire yet others to follow.

Keep scrolling down if you are looking for the full transcript.

More information on ITDP India's Complete Streets work

Here are links to items mentioned in the episode (and more).


Footpath Fix - A step by step implementation guide for footpath projects in Indian cities. 
Footpath Design - An introduction to creating safe, comfortable, and accessible footpaths in Indian cities. 
Better Streets, Better Cities - A guide to street design in urban India. 

Articles about Indian cities that are planning or have implemented complete streets projects 

More information about Shreya Gadepalli

Shreya is Director for South Asia for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), an international non-profit that promotes sustainable and equitable transport worldwide.

She has been with ITDP since the late 1990s when she played a central role in ITDP’s extremely successful India Cycle Rickshaw Improvement Project which created an improved and modernised design for India’s cycle rickshaws. The design took off to become the standard design across northern India, with huge benefits for millions of people.

More recently Shreya has been guiding ITDP India’s work on BRT planning, parking reform, Transit-Oriented Development, and our topic today: complete streets and street space redesigns.

She is also an avid photographer and you can see some of her beautiful photographs in this post.

Shreya is based in Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras, but travels frequently all over India.

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Here is the YOUTUBE VIDEO Version


[Paul Barter] Welcome to the Reinventing Transport show, the international podcast that helps you push for better urban mobility and better cities.

Today I'm talking with Shreya Gadepalli about street space reallocation and complete streets. Shreya is Director for South Asia for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the International non-profit on sustainable transport. Shreya has been with ITDP since the late 1990s. Lately she's been guiding their work on various issues including our topic today, street space redesigns. There is more about Shreya in the show notes at where you can also see some of her striking photographs from the streets of India. I think you'll find Shreya's insights useful even if you're not in India. Enjoy the interview! 

Shreya, a warm welcome to the Reinventing Transport podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today.  Today we'll be talking about street redesigns, sometimes called Complete Street plans or street space reallocations, focusing on the context of India. My first question about that is why should people care about reallocating street space in the Indian context? 

[Shreya Gadepalli] That's a very good question. Let me start with some basic statistics here. More than the seven out of ten trips made in Indian cities as of today are either on foot or on a bicycle or some form of public transportation and when I say public transportation I'm also including here various forms of informal transit like shared autorickshaws or minibuses. When it comes to women that number goes up to as much as nine out of ten trips. So nine out of ten trips by women are on foot or on public

Now these are some very large numbers and if that's the case is our infrastructure reflective of that and the answer is clearly no. Our infrastructure is far from fair, where less than one percent of streets in urban India actually have footpaths.  There is practically no infrastructure for cycling and the majority of space is hogged by personal motor vehicles, that's cars motorcycles, even though they account for less than a quarter of all trips made. And especially when it comes to cars that number is less than 10% of all trips made. Therefore it's important that we make sure that our streets are equitable they're safe and they efficiently serve the needs of people. 

[Paul] So I guess when people are looking at the streets in a city like Delhi or even Mumbai they gain the impression of the importance of the modes of transport from the space that they are taking even if they're moving  very very few people.

[Shreya] That's right and therefore when you ask the question as to how many people actually use cars, oftentimes people are confused and they think about 50% of people actually have access to cars and that numbers more like 5 percent not 50. 

[Paul] When we're redesigning these streets a lot of these street reallocations have been taking space from mixed traffic which motorists feel as though is taking space from them and giving it to dedicated space - whether it's to buses, footpaths, bicycle space. Realistically if we were godlike in our wisdom we would say the most efficient thing would be to give most of it to the more space efficient modes but that's not politically realistic. So what in fact is happening in the street designs that ITDP has been suggesting?

[Shreya] So ITDP really started this whole idea if you will complete streets in Indian cities with the Better Streets Better Cities guide for street
design in Indian cities. This was way back in 2010, 2011 when we published this document which is seminal in nature because until then there was no document that actually spoke about how to design streets especially in the Indian context. Since then we've been working with multiple cities and, as of now, we work with close to about 20 cities across India and how to design complete streets, essentially streets for all, streets that are safe, that are equitable and they're efficient in how they service the needs of people.

Multiple cities have come forward but I would really want to take the examples of Chennai and Pune, which in my opinion are really at the top. Chennai became the first Indian city to adopt a policy for streets which says that non-motorized transportation, that is walking and cycling, are the priority of the city and that's where they will allocate most of their funds. So the policy actually explicitly says that over 60% of the money that the city
will spend on transportation will go towards improving walking and cycling infrastructure, that the city would actually have zero deaths of pedestrians and cyclists in the city and these happen to be one of the largest numbers. Chennai happens to be a fairly unsafe city. I will talk about the safety numbers in a bit.

But safety is a big issue in Indian cities and Chennai said, we want to make sure that our city becomes safer and much much safer than it is right now and also have very clear metrics as to how many streets would have safer walking and cycling infrastructure. They officially said that practically all streets which are larger than 12 meters in width would have safer walking and cycling environments. So the city really has been following up with this policy.

[Paul] There's obviously a lot of momentum in the wrong direction in many cities and and I imagine Chennai has big road projects and others but
this is a remarkable change in their goals and so you're saying that it really is being followed through. That's very encouraging.

[Shreya] That's right, so since it has adopted the policy nearly 60 kilometers of streets have been retrofitted with better walking and cycling environments, better footpaths and the city as we speak is also redesigning and implementing close to 100 kilometers. Its goal is to eventually redesign gross about 500 kilometers of what are called bus-route roads - that's essentially any street on which is the bus should have a better walking environment because there is a strong connection between public transportation and walking. 

[Paul] Is bus priority part of the story in Chennai too?

[Shreya] Yes it is. The city is actually now developing a detailed plan for a Bus Rapid Transit system which will have priority for buses on dedicated central lanes along with a host of other features that would make the possibility of having a metro, if you will - the bus as
a Metro bus in some senses, as cities like Mexico City have, or Bogota. 

[Paul] Some listeners may be aware that some of India's experience with BRT has been rather unhappy for example the Delhi BRT which was you know derailed so to speak by opposition from certain groups. How is it that Chennai has been able to set these very ambitious goals for non motorized transport and actually reallocate quite significant funding and road space to the space-efficient and majority modes of transport? 

[Shreya] I must give a lot of credit  to the leadership of the city the previous Commissioner of the city and the present Commissioner of the city have been strong proponents of this approach of making streets for all and that has also been followed through by the team which is there at the Municipal Corporation. ITDP incidentally, along with the local university,
conducted in-depth training for close to about 90 engineers on how to plan design and implement streets for all or complete streets and we've also had a fair amount of support coming in from various other stakeholders like local urban designers and architects as well as resident associations and others. And even the media has been a fairly strong supporter of these activities,. Which is not to say that there hasn't been opposition. There has certainly been opposition from with different quarters, especially those who use cars who've  been unhappy with the fact that they think that space has been taken away from them. But the truth is that the streets have only reallocated to make it slightly more equitable than what they were earlier. 

[Paul] Ah, so you're saying that there was a lot of effort that went into coalition building in Chennai. 

[Shreya] Absolutely! And Chennai is not the only case. Even Pune, another
city that ITDP has that long history with ... we've been there with Pune for now eight years and we essentially did the same thing. We created a coalition along with various other local civil society organizations with the local media groups, and with the support of the Municipal Corporation which has had fairly progressive leadership over this period, the city became the first to have street design guidelines of its own, adopted a policy which makes pedestrians and cyclists its priority and has now even created a dedicated cell for bicycle and street design planning within the Municipal Corporation.

And the city has also been following this through. As we speak, the city is retrofitting about 125 kilometers of streets some of the pilots that have already been done have one of the best quality pieces of infrastructure of walking and cycling
anywhere in the country so far.

And these have inspired many other cities. ITDP also does a lot of cross connection peer-to-peer learning exercises. We've brought officers from various cities of Tamil Nadu and other states down to Pune to show how good quality infrastructure could be created. And now ten cities of Tamil Nadu under the aegis of the state government with technical support from ITDP are preparing their city-wide Complete Streets plans. 

[Paul] So this is fascinating because for an outsider they may gain the impression that it was the technical sort of advice in your guide that was crucial but in fact it's an interesting combination of the technical information and politics right? Street space seems to be a matter where power, politics, vested interests are really important and there's just no choice but to actually get active, get organized, form coalitions to make things happen even against some opposition.

[Shreya] Absolutely. And you know the truth is that people who walk often come from the lowest strata of the society and often were voiceless same goes for cyclists as well. But the good news is that there have been very strong proponents in the civil society who have become their voice. And the media also have been lately very supportive of this initiative to make streets safer and fairer. 

[Paul] When it comes to replicating  the success in in places where these things are happening, I mean ITDP can't be everywhere, so I wonder what would be your advice to local advocates or people within government who want to make this happen? 

[Shreya] I would say that data is a very important point. Often times people don't see. Pedestrians or cyclists or even bus
users are invisible because of the fact that when you just see a street, and in the typical Indian Street you always see more or less it is cars and motorcycles and therefore one is in an illusion that these modes are the primary, the main modes of transportation. when actually it's buses and walking which are a much larger mode of transportation along with informal transit. So it's to first get data. Make data a weapon if you will, and use this data to make a case as to why streets should be designed the way they should be designed. The second thing, join forces! Let this not be just an individual effort but a community effort where people like urban designers where advocates and neighborhood associations - everybody - comes together and demands for streets which are for people rather than for cars. 

[Paul] That's very encouraging
in some ways and in other ways it's sobering because there's a lot of hard work involved in this organizing effort, isn't there. 

[Shreya] Absolutely, it's not easy and it's always hard to come together. But what we've seen in multiple cities happening does make me feel positive about this.  And it is not just cities that ITDP has been working in. Even other cities, like Bangalore I always think is a good example, where multiple streets have been redesigned to a fairly high quality that's focused on pedestrians. And the city really seems to be going forward in the right direction.  It's supported by the state government as well. 

[Paul] Anyone who's been following this issue internationally would have come across the term, tactical urbanism. Have you come across that set of tactics in India? For example, the idea of using temporary pilots with temporary materials to demonstrate what something will look like and help to persuade people that this is something that would work for them.

[Shreya] Tactical urbanism has been a strong component of our work in multiple cities, whether it be Chennai, Pune or Coimbatore. And even other cities like Ranchi and Nashik, actually you know we use tactical urbanism to make a case for why streets should have wider footpaths in Pune and in Chennai which has now led to an entire street, a high street in the middle of Chennai which is being pedestrianized. so this street, which is close to 24 to 30 meters in width, would only have lanes for buses amongst motorized vehicles and the remaining right-of-way will be entirely for pedestrians and cyclists and people who just want to enjoy public space. 

[Paul] Sometimes I think about places that have moved in the right direction to encourage space efficient
and majority kinds of transport and very often the story seems to be that the difference between success and failure was getting to the point of having places that people loved that they wanted to protect from traffic do you think Indian cities have enough places that people really love within their cities that they would then be willing to make these efforts to protect them from traffic? 

[Shreya] I think it's getting there. It's definitely not the norm but it's getting there. And what is heartening to see is that there are lots of individual efforts in multiple cities, where a local architect or an urban designer has joined forces with the local municipal authority to pilot what a better street would look like, either improving the quality of footpaths or in some cases pedestrianizing the entire area and this is this is a fairly positive sign of the direction in which city's are going.

I must also point out here that the smart cities mission of the Government of India has been a strong support for this agenda for complete streets, if you will, because practically every single city in the country has some component of complete streets under the Smart Cities mission. Now, one get always debate whether they have gotten it entirely right or not, and there's definitely a lot of efforts to be made to make cities more aware about all the components of complete street and ensure that it gets implemented properly because it's not just about coalition building. There's a lot of technical work as well.  When for example utilities underground utilities are not taken care of when redesigning a street the street very quickly falls into disrepair because of some half-baked maintenance activity which he leaves it dug-up and therefore all the effort that's put goes to waste and in
some senses goes down the drain, which does not exist. 

[Paul]  That's a very nice segue into my next question which relates to institutionalizing this progress because I guess like in many other countries so far the positive projects were probably oasis in a desert of bad streets or poorly designed streets so progress would depend on institutionalizing some of the the best practice and all the better practice which includes making sure that the various actors that dig up streets and change streets have this as part of their DNA going forward.  Can you see a hope to get to that point, so that it becomes just standard practice to always follow your guide for example? 

[Shreya] I think it's getting there I often tell people that there are four C's that are involved. The first one is Clarity. Clarity as to what needs to be done.  But then that has to be followed up with Capital. If you
don't have money then all that good idea goes for nothing. And even if you have the capital then you need to have the Capacity to be able to do it. And lastly you have to have Coordination between various institutions which are there, to ensure that work happens properly but also whatever gets created is managed and kept in a high level of workability, if you will, in the future.

So there are a few examples, where Pune I think is very promising where the city now has a bicycle department it also has created a street design cell under its roads department. It has hired fresh talent into the Municipal Corporation to help the city with implementing these projects. But there's also been a process of empanelment(?). You know a very key component is to get the right designers on board and ITDP has been helping training cities on what we call the eight steps to complete streets and how exactly you get these
things done. You know, getting the right terms of reference, hiring the right designers, having the internal capacity to monitor, engaging public in ensuring that there is support that's built. Getting the utilities right etc etc. There's a very interesting new publication that we have come out with. It's called the Footpath Fix. You can find it on the ITDP India website. Go check it out. So there are resources out there and there are practices which now are emerging from multiple cities.

Chennai also similarly has an agency which has just been created, called the Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, under which a lot of the work is being done under the aegis of which a lot of this work is being done, which allows the municipal corporation for example to bring the electricity board or the underground utilities or the police department to come together to ensure that whatever gets created is coordinated and done well. 

[Paul]  This is really fascinating. I think many many listeners who have maybe seen reports from Indian
cities in the international media would have the impression of very traffic clogged and polluted places and not be aware that there are some encouraging, maybe small so far but very encouraging, trends and initiatives being taken. Even though I do know quite a bit about what's going on in India, I'm surprised to hear that you are so upbeat and positive.

[Shreya]  Yeah! We also have to be upbeat and positive because there is no other way!

[Paul] Maybe I'll just end with one final question. You've tackled some really important big themes. Is there any final point that you want to make that you want to make sure that listener remembers about this topic. 

[Shreya] I would just say that you know Indian cities are now finally realizing the importance of Complete Streets. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done and issues with capital coordination and capacity. We need to get
a lot of these things fixed. But there's positive momentum, there's some good examples which can inspire others. And we need to use data for our case to ensure that cities listen, that other people understand the importance of creating complete streets. There are good signs at the national level as well. ITDP along with other people are working with the Indian force Congress to improve national guidelines. The guidelines include things like Bus Rapid Transit, parking management, street re-design, street network planning and so on and and so forth. So I think a lot of the foundational activities are happening now and I see a lot of positive momentum for the next decade. 

[Paul] Well Shreya, it's been wonderful talking to you. I hope to have you on the show again in the future because there is much more to talk about. Thank you again Shreya.

[Shreya] Pleasure.


  1. Changes to urban environments commonly produce winners and losers. This is mostly illustrated in the social consequences of gentrification processes.
    Tactical Urbanism


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