‘Walking around’ is my most beautiful memory from my few days in cities like Vancouver, Victoria or London. You can walk a few blocks for everyday needs, work, or admire the surroundings or seasons using the ample walking space.
Walking is also my favourite way to explore a destination, especially in the mornings. Of the 15-odd cities and towns I have lived in India, the most walkable were the army cantonments I grew up in. Panaji in Goa is perfect for walking. You can walk along the river or market without the nearby traffic bothering you. Unfortunately, the hot and humid weather with long monsoons is not walk-friendly.
Gangtok is another walk-friendly city. Its walkways at the edge of its hilly roads let you walk uninterruptedly with a clear view of the Kanchenjunga range of the Himalayas. Despite the hilly terrain, the city has given respect to the people who love to walk. Chandigarh, the city I grew up in, was very walk-friendly until our lust for cars overtook all the empty spaces.
In big cities, people drive to local markets less than 500 meters away. The time and energy spent finding parking need to justify the errand. My septuagenarian parents living in NCR have a simple answer – walking is unsafe. They are right. There is hardly any walking space, traffic is too aggressive and pedestrian space, if any, is infringed upon.
In Bengaluru, a city blessed with lovely weather to walk, one evening, I walked to a temple about 2 km from my home. It was a nightmare, with traffic coming from all sides. The narrow footpath needs help accommodating the trees, the chai shops and their customers, and the eateries and waste. At every intersection, you need to get down, cross the road and step up on the pathway or whatever is left.
The techies with huge backpacks rarely realise that they occupy thrice the space and can potentially hit someone whenever they turn around. Taxis are parked half on the footpath and half on the road. Two-wheeler drivers are talking with their phones in hand, and the army of delivery boys zoom past.
It was dark on my way back, so I had to be extra careful of the garbage, the stones lying around, and the vehicles yet to switch on the headlights. I was walking between the shining well-lit corporate offices on either side but had zero streetlights on the walkway. The concept of zebra crossings is alien in this coveted startup district of the new-age Bengaluru.
In my head, I reached home safe and sound because I was chanting Hanuman Chalisa all this while. This is not satire. More than 30% of traffic deaths and 80% of road causalities are that of pedestrians on our roads. While some may be at fault, most die or suffer due to others’ negligence or failed urban planning.
In a country with an age-old tradition of walking – be it for pilgrimage or daily chores of life — when and why did we lose all our walking space. Why do we think cars need more space than those walking around?
Walking, to me, is meditation. You get meditative as your feet move in a rhythmic motion, your mind starts calming down, and ideas emerge from the deep recesses of your subconscious. It is the easiest way to stay healthy, minimising the need for gym or wellness coach subscriptions. Walking together is a great way to bond with neighbours and friends. The best way to explore a destination is by walking. You engage with every nuance, decide your pace as you feel, and stop whenever something piques your interest.
Think about all the pollution we can avoid and the health we can gain if we stop using our vehicles for, say, less than a 1–2-kilometre distance. I hope someone commissions a study to put it in numbers. All that pedestrians need is a safe and clean space to walk. Initiatives to reclaim vehicle-free public spaces like Happy Streets in Bengaluru and Sunday Streets in Mumbai give some hope. But we need this 24X7 for daily life, not just a couple of hours a week.
Pedestrians do not contribute directly to the organised economy as the automotive industry does. The same goes for cycle lanes promoted by the cycle industry. Infrastructure is where the money lies for all those who depend on taxpayers. The poor pedestrians want the space left to them as it is.
Smart City’s mission statement includes walkability as a parameter. Eight per cent of its budget, over Rs 20,000 crore, is allocated to create walkable localities. This is far lower than allocated for parking, roads and transit infrastructure, somewhere telling you the importance of walking. It also clubs walking with cycling, which means walkers would lose space to infrastructure for cyclists. Finally, how much of it translates to reality is yet to be seen.
An ideal walking space would be free of traffic, aesthetically designed, well-connected, well-lit and easily accessible. It can have some space to socialise – remember the village chaupal under a tree, a cultural hub maybe. It may seem like a dream at this point, but if we do not ask for it, we will never get it. Those who took away our walking spaces lobbied well for it. Can the walk-loving citizens lobby to reclaim it back?
First published The New Indian Express on Apr 9, 2023.