Cities are inevitably judged by the efficiency and inclusiveness of their transportation systems and networks, them being vital veins for the city’s functioning. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Transportation sector has progressed immensely over the past few decades, so much so that the pioneering two-wheeled human-powered transport system – the cycle – has little, sometimes no space on the roads any longer. To this inescapable conundrum, Chennai is no exception.
From vital transportation to fitness and recreation, cycling is a greener and cleaner option for all needs – and of late, the latter aspect has been on the rise in the city. And why not? There is a certain wonderment experienced when you get onto that saddle and pedal yourself forward – the joy of your leg muscles’ pull as forward you’re pushed; the wind in your hair and a song in your heart – there is a certain wonderment when you get onto that saddle and explore the city and all the joys it has to offer. But then, there’s a catch – inside the city, cycling is almost fatal; you’re bullied by the motorised vehicles, the unfriendly lorries and mean horn-blasting cars. To experience the joy of cycling, we are forced to escape to the outskirts, or to the really early morning hours or late nights.
Travelling is a way of experiencing new things, of exploring new places and feeling new things; it broadens the mind and makes some peace. And travelling by a cycle only makes the whole experience even more fulfilling. The trick is, it’s just fast enough to keep you moving ahead, and just slow enough to let you savour and enjoy each moment, each scene you cross – the birds on that tree, the lone pink flower in a sea of green, the smiling old shop lady who hands you bottle of water while you try to catch your breath, “Where are you cycling from? All the way from there?!” That’s something you do not, and CAN NOT, get from any motorized vehicle- bikes are too fast, cars too closed, flights too detached, and walking, well, unless you have a lot of time on your hands.
So in case you’re not already on your cycle, here are a few routes around Chennai to get you started! As a general rule, all routes mentioned here are safe for cyclists at the following timings;
04.30 am to 07.30 am
10.00 pm to 12.00 pm (Main roads only. Front and back cycle lights, helmets mandatory.)
A. Beginner Routes – Below 20 km
Route 1 – Koyambedu – Anna tower park – Koyambedu
Short and easy, a route in the centre of the city – if you want to add a challenge ride up the Koyambedu flyover and cruise down. A stop at Anna tower park is great in the mornings, walk a circuit or two to stretch the muscles before getting onto the saddle again. The avenues of Anna Nagar are mostly residential streets so less traffic can be expected.
Total distance 10 km. Duration (max.) 1 hour
Route 2 – Madhya Kailash – Besant nagar beach – Madhya Kailash
Who doesn’t love the beach in the mornings – the fresh breeze and gorgeous sunrise. The roads are hard and neat, speed cycling is great, especially tree-lined Besant Avenue close to Theosophical society.
Total Distance: 10.1km. Duration (max.) 1h 30 mins
Route 3 – Madhya Kailash – Pallikarnai – Madhya Kailash
OMR is every cyclist’s dream – wide and pleasant to ride. Cycling along the Pallikarnai marsh is a beautiful sight in the morning, you can spot flocks of birds in amidst the greenery. There are small gazebos off the main road where one can sit and take in the beautiful scenery.
Total distance 21 km. Duration (max.) 1h 30 min
Intermediate Routes – 20-30 km
Route 1 – Anna university – Marina beach – Anna University
Right along the main roads, it is advisable to get on the saddle real early to avoid 8 am traffic. Also, this is one of the best night-cycling routes in the city – well-lit streets and good safety for the night rider. Marina beach is a treat in itself – mornings mean beautiful sunrise and fresh air; nights mean a mid-ride ice-cream at the beach!
Total distance 22.4 km. Duration (max.) 1 h 45 min
Route 2 – OMR to ECR loop
OMR is another great night-cycling option owing to the bright streetlights and around-the-clock police patrol. The connection from OMR to ECR at Shollinganallur junction is a great spot to cross a wide and clean Buckingham canal – you can stop at the corner of the bridge for a break from pedalling. Another add-on is a brief detour through any of the side streets on the ECR to an isolated and silent beach.
Total distance 29 km. Duration (max.) 2h 15 mins
Route 3– Velachery MRTS – Ottiambakkam quarry – Velachery MRTS
After Perumbakkam, the route is mostly through winding tarred village roads, so peaceful and silent in the morning hours. Ottiambakkam stone quarry is an abandoned quarry which has accumulated rain water over the years and forms a beautiful pond – swim with caution, though. You can take a brief 15-minute hike to the top and spot eagles or other birds, and experience a panoramic view of the city far beyond.
Total distance 30 km. Duration (max.) 2 hours 30 mins
Expert Routes – 30+ km
Route 1 – Porur junction – Chembarambakkam lake – Porur junction
Small winding tar roads through small towns lead to one of the biggest lakes in the city – Chembarambakkam lake. One uphill and you’re onto the small path just adjacent the large blue water mass. Great for those who love solitude and water. During the return, you can take a short fun detour to Decathlon, every sports-shoppers paradise.
Total distance 32 km. Duration (max.) 3 hours
Route 2 – Padi flyover – Puzhal lake – Padi flyover
From Padi flyover, taking the city route in the morning is better due to less vehicles. Puzhal lake is another beautiful morning spot – during summer the lake is dry enough to walk on some parts of it, mind the sinking mud spots though. During monsoon, the lake is full and if you have the knack of it, you can ask fishermen to lend their canoes to you for a few `bucks. The National highway route back has good ups and downs to train your calves and is mostly free at all times of the day.
Total distance 35 km. Duration (max.) 3 hours
Route 3 – Padi flyover – Sholavaram lake – Padi flyover
A little farther down from Puzhal is this out-of-the-way Sholavaram lake. When the lake is dry, its full of green grass presenting a whole other beautiful scene. Expect to be completely on your own here, very few people wander inside from the main road.
Total Distance 48 km. Duration (max.) 3h 30 mins hours
* All distances measured are nearly accurate
* All ride durations are approximate and are inclusive of an average 15 mins break/stop at the destination mentioned.
“Everything is world class, Sir!”
In an era of uninhibited consumerism and commercialization, one can oft hear this cry- the strive to emulate international standards and cultivate a global image of the redundant City. This urban growth for the sake of growth neglects one important ideal – real human development, which is essential for creation of humane habitats, especially for the urban homeless. The move to create 100 new smart cities in India, comes at a time when measures to elevate urban poverty still progresses at a sluggish pace, if at all. Slums, squatter settlements and the countless homeless people who survive on the streets of the city are testimonies to the harsh realities of life, against the backdrop of ceaseless “growth” in some parts of Chennai.
The urban poor in Chennai, especially the homeless, depend on the Informal sector for their livelihood. Loading and unloading goods, operating the pushcarts, garbage disposal, painting, tinkering and housekeeping are among the many odd jobs that they do, localising around areas where the demand for informal labour is high. Now, the interesting point is that this informal sector thrives in the commercial districts of every city, like George Town in Chennai. Consequently, places that see the most money changing hands are also the places that have the most number of homeless poor squatting on the streets!
Hidden amidst the ever-present sheen of commercialism in George Town is another side to this historic core – the countless urban poor who have made the streets of George Town their home because of the perpetual demand for labour and the mélange of opportunities it confers. As a result of its proximity to two major transit hubs, the Port and the Central Railway Station, it has transformed into a prime commercial district, powered by the never-ending supply of migrant laborers.
Within George Town, the homeless poor settle in and around the streets they work in, resulting in a high degree of fragmentation and a displaced sense of territoriality within them. They appear in the night, keeping themselves to the shadows, losing sleep to the mosquitoes and policemen, huddled together on the pavements for warmth and safety. Come morning, they disappear into the crowds, transporting goods in their rickety pushcarts the whole day. This repeats every day, all year. Take a drive through the streets of George Town at 4 in the morning to see pavements lined with sleeping families, some even inside standing autos and pushcarts!
The urban poor are considered to be significant only in terms of the benefits they provide for the economic sector. They are used and accepted as an army of cheap labour. They are nothing more than an invisible workforce to the average urban dweller and it is this invisibility that does the most harm. The lack of a definite ‘home’ excludes them from most social welfare schemes; they are relegated to the sidelines even in the matter of their own relocation programmes, forcibly executed by the local authorities. These rehabilitation crusades blatantly disregard the dependency of the homeless on the immediate context for survival. This is why forced eviction fails– it separates them from a context they are irrevocably tied to. It moves them to places alien to them, and unable to find employment they revert to the original conditions in the core of the city.
So, what is the government doing wrong here? When did housing become an investment opportunity, a privilege rather than a basic human right? While evicting the homeless from their settlements violates that right, what then is the most humane way to tackle the issue of urban homelessness? Moreover, how can architects and urban planners contribute in creating truly humane habitats for the homeless, in a city that is inclusive and socially cohesive?
Integration with the Context
First, it is imperative to understand that the urban poor have a complex, inseparable relationship with the society and the surrounding context. This interconnected nexus dictates their lifestyle and status in the urban fabric. Contextuality is the key to survival for the urban poor. Providing surface level interventions might produce an interim solution but in order to create a lasting effect, all rehabilitation measures need to devise frameworks that integrate the poor with the existing urban context, making them more acceptable in the society.
Dealing with identity and empowerment
Designs for affordable housing need to address issues of individual and communal identity within a social group that has been marginalized and neglected for years. The way forward is in not in just providing housing on a silver plate; it is in empowering the poor. Like the saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish, he will live for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will live forever’. Likewise, enabling and empowering the poor, creating opportunities to break the vicious cycle of poverty is paramount to the success of any rehabilitation scheme. Spaces dedicated to expression of self, social interaction and bonding with the community will generate a form of social capital, a unique asset to the creation of cohesive cities.
Above all, a change in the city requires a change in the mindsets of the people. Demarcating areas as ‘slums’ or developing new neighborhoods for the urban poor in the suburbs is nothing but a form of modern spatial apartheid, not unlike the spatial apartheid during British colonisation that saw the creation of Black Town, now George Town. Slums, squatters and other informal settlements should not be viewed as the dark side of increasing urbanization, but as a new form of architecture and urbanism that fuses ethics with aesthetics. It is a resource, one of immense potential, to be shaped and nurtured, and not a liability of a developing city. The value of a slum is generated by its people, through their work in the city and locality. Blurring the boundaries around these settlements, enabling a give-take relationship with the city and society is the first step towards creating a truly ‘world class’ city. Give it time.
[This article is the joint work of NASA Gsen Trophy team of 2013]