For the first time in Mumbai, an entire stretch of highway has been reserved exclusively for runners and cyclists. The service lane stretch of the Eastern Express Highway between Ghatkopar and its connector to the Airoli bridge, will be barricaded and closed for vehicular traffic between 5 – 7.30 am so that walkers, runners and cyclists can train safely.
The traffic police implemented this measure following a plea from the Eastern Express Highway Runners group. The joint commissioner of police (traffic) Pravin Padwal told The Times of India that the idea was to mitigate risk of vehicular mishaps for fitness enthusiasts on this stretch.
The move comes after the death of a 57-year-old runner Rajalakshmi Ramakrishnan on March 19, while practising for her forthcoming marathon. She was killed by a car speeding at 120 kms/hour and was flung almost 20 feet away, while she was running near Worli promenade.
Her death has brought focus to a much ignored issue of the safety of runners in the city.
Following her death, the Mumbai police also cracked down heavily on bikers speeding on the roads at night, endangering the lives of people. In a major operation on April 4, 2023, the Kherwadi police seized 48 bikes and charged 72 persons for various crimes including racing bikes and betting on such races.
“With their act, these bikers were not only endangering their own lives but also putting the lives of other motorists and passersby (in danger),” an official stated here.
Community of runners
Mumbai is home to a sizeable community of runners, who pursue their passion in spite of the hurdles. In the annual marathon that the city hosts in January, about 15,000 people participate in the full marathon and roughly 12,000 people participate in the half marathon. These numbers reflect the number of serious runners that pursue their passion in the city, ” says journalist Preeti Sompura, an avid marathoner.
While most runners aver that Mumbai streets are safe for all including women, they deal with different challenges on a daily basis. “Though I have never had any bad experiences, I know someone who was patted by a passing biker. And when she tried to run into one of the bylanes, he returned and patted her again. Then there are bikers who swerve near runners or zoom past them. Though such incidents do tend to unsettle people, they fail to deter them,” says Meghna Chhugera, 47, who shifted from group running to solo running to keep up with her then hectic schedule as cabin crew of British Airways.
Since runners generally start in the early morning hours, they explore safety checks before embarking on runs. “I generally do a recce of a particular stretch during daytime and consider factors like street lights or quality of roads, before I actually start running on it,” says Meghna. This is important for her because she also tends to run at midnight. For short distance running, she feels comfortable at the Lokhandwala back road where people are on the streets at all times of the day or night.
Lack of open spaces for recreational and serious running means compel people to either run on the streets or travel far just for a run. Meghna, a resident of Andheri’s Lokhandwala complex, used to travel to NCPA, Nariman Point to run all the way from there till Worli and return via Peddar Road to Babulnath or even via Hanging gardens for an 18-km run. She prefers to travel to Bandra to practice hill running on the steep streets near Mount Mary’s Church.
Preeti Sompura, similarly, prefers to run either at the Juhu beach or on the Marine Drive stretch. Preeti says options like Aarey are not feasible due to the scare of leopard sightings. “Juhu beach is the only beach good for running; almost all other beaches are either small or dirty. Juhu beach tends to get very crowded at weekends. Even places like Bandstand, where film stars Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan live, are avoidable for running during weekends. These roads have hoards of fans, even during the early hours of the day,” points out Preeti.
Most say that pursuing their passion for running is difficult because of various infrastructural hurdles like bad roads and the city being in construction mode. “Uneven roads, too many speed breakers and potholes are an issue. I tripped over speed breakers thrice and hurt myself. I prefer to find my way around it by using a headlamp and carrying a torch at all times,” says Meghna.
Finding ways to pursue running
Coach and marathoner Deepak Londhe, co-founder of Striders Miles Pvt Ltd, a pan-India fitness-training group, feels that the city needs to open up its existing spaces for runners and also maintain them well. “Places like Marine Drive, Bandra, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Goregaon, could be cordoned off exclusively for runners and cyclists during the morning hours, say from 5am to 8am. More importantly, policies to open up streets for activities should be implemented on a consistent, long-term basis and not be withdrawn randomly. Similarly, runners should be granted access to existing facilities like the Bombay University stadium, Marine Lines, at reasonable rates. Also, existing tracks at gardens should be kept well-maintained for use. Recreational grounds should not be allowed to rot and waste but be handed over or leased out for proper maintenance,” says Deepak. .
Preeti recommends earmarking and reserving streets for recreational activities for particular hours daily or weekly. “Though the city did witness campaigns called Sunday Streets and Happy Streets, they failed to sustain themselves,” she rues. Preeti also recommends that cities also throw open existing spaces like Kalina University campus or even its stadiums for runners as is done in the cities of Surat and Rajkot respectively.
Earmarking streets seems to be the best way to ensure safety of runners and to make up for the huge shortfall of recreational open spaces in the city.