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.

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.

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.

If you liked this

Please do share this article and episode with any of your friends and colleagues who could benefit.

Please also subscribe (for free): sign up to get updates by email from this site OR subscribe to the audio podcast (search for 'Reinventing Transport' in your podcast player app or you can click the symbol that looks like a wifi signal strength icon in the player below).

Here is the YOUTUBE VIDEO Version