(I have embarked on a new journey of writing a column in English 'On a roll, stroll and two pedals' for DNA Ahmedabad starting from today - 20th April, Monday. After writing in Gujarati for more than a year, it will be nice to indulge in English writing with a promise (to myself) to come back to writing in Gujarati again.)
It is often said that we human beings are different from other animals because we walk on two feet. But do we have space in our cities to perform one of the most basic human characteristics – walking on two feet? Do our cities provide ample, continuous network of walk-able footpaths? Fragmented, discontinuous and encroached margins on roadsides are not walk-able footpaths. Not so long ago, cities and small towns were quite walk-able. It was pleasant to go out to take a stroll. Walking, strolling, loitering provides opportunities to embrace the city. Walking surely has health and environmental benefits apart from intangible civic benefits.
There is something unique about Indian cities that one-third of intra-city trips are carried out by walking or cycling. In my research of the mobility of poor people, it was observed that 70% of poor working women walked to work. In fact, walking is essential for people from all classes. Even if you drive a car or a bike, you still have to walk up to the vehicle! People often drive around unnecessarily to find a parking spot very close to their destination. If walking was a pleasure and our streets were walk-able then people would not mind parking their vehicles a few blocks away. We are slowly getting into the habit of not walking – even for shorter distances. And one of the prime reasons is a complete lack of infrastructure for walking. Only 30% of urban roads in India have walk-able footpaths and this results in making the pedestrians one of the largest victim groups of fatal road crashes in urban areas.
World’s best cities provide many opportunities to walk around without any apparent purpose. When we borrow ‘smartness’ or glossy skylines from world’s best cities, shouldn’t we borrow their widest footpaths - avenues, promenades, boulevards, parades or esplanades? Apparently, making a footpath wider than 5-feet in Ahmedabad is considered blasphemous. They say, let us not make wider footpaths or they will be encroached. It is the same attitude as – do not walk or you will fall! The so-called ‘model roads’ paved and re-paved by the municipal corporation have the tiniest bits of footpaths. Pedestrians walk being sandwiched between haphazardly parked vehicles on footpaths and moving vehicles on the road. If pedestrians are given proper space, the carriageways for traffic will become less chaotic.
We need to reconfigure our streets to make walking enjoyable. For which, we need well-designed network of footpaths that are continuous across junctions and streets. Making good footpaths is no rocket science. This goes hand in hand with a practical policy of paid parking to regulate haphazardly parked vehicles on the footpaths. Walking is one of the first rituals of being human. When a baby walks for the first time, the parents tell the world from the rooftops. When this baby grows up, s/he does not have space to walk in the city or to play on streets. If we want to change this then we really have to put in practice a simple science of making cities walk-able.