Walkability is a growing concern in our cities. Sure enough, a city that doesn’t provide appropriate pedestrain infrastructure to its dwellers is sending a strong message of insecurity and unsafe streets – streets that are increasingly being built for cars and not for people. And this is disheartening, because real joy of a city is always experienced on foot (it’s sights, smells, sounds, soaking in the activity).

And to address this very issue, the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia) organized a “Walkability Forum” yesterday on 22nd June, that I was fortunate to be a part of. It brought together key government and development agencies, research institutes and civil society that have an interest in improving walkability in India. The highlight of the forum was the launch of their website http://walkabilityasia.org/, which is step forward in engaging with people on improving walkability in our cities.

A few thoughts

Satyendra Garg,  Joint Commissioner Police (Traffic) Delhi said – “Pedestrians account for 50% of road accidents and 80% of the accidents are avoidable”.

Parthaa Bosu, India Representative of CAI-Asia said, “There has been nearly 10% – 30% reduction in walking mode across Indian cities. This would add to a huge number in the city vehicular traffic.”

Prof. Rajan, Head of Humanities/Social Sciences department and currently working on Effects on motorization on Climate Change, at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, said, “If we design for the poor, the rest will automatically take care of itself…with a trickle up effect, rather than trickle down.” He also stressed the need of decoupling development with motorization.

Sam Miller, the author of book, “Delhi: Adventures in a Mega-city” said, “Walking is like an adventure in Delhi and it is essential that we improve walking as it improves social interactions”

Christopher Kost, Director of Research from ITDP talked about the essentials of a good street design.

Here is a shocking statistic –

In Delhi, car penetration is 18%, 2 wheeler penetration is 38% and the about 50% of Delhites either cycle or walk.

Now, why would you want to build a city that caters to only 18% – 35% of the populace? The reason is that people who cycle or walk to work are the poor, who are quitely pushed out of the equation in a “growing economy”. And this is where Prof. Rajan’s point comes in – Design for the poor!

Some Ideas…

There is a common consesus that walkability needs to be improved in the cities, and streets need to be designed in a way that enhances and encourgaes people coming out on streets as social places, rather than a place to quickly pass by. Some of the suggestions that were thrown to this effect:

  • Discourage people to take their cars by increasing parking fee
  • Remove parking spaces in front of Metro train stations
  • Build a robust “Last mile connectivity” infrastructure
  • Reduce the time taken to travel using public transport than cars
  • Promote “ActiveEdge” program – acitivities planned alongside the sidewalks (vendors/shops/art etc.)

Missing in Action

These points are valid to an extent, but I believe bringing behavior change of the motorists is by far the biggest factor in promoting walkability. And this behavior change can only be brought by the companies selling those cars – The Automobile industry and the car manufacturers. Period. Just to drive home the point, I attended “Urban Mobility Conference” last year, and attended this “Walkability Forum” – and I didn’t see the car makers, when they are the important piece of the puzzle. Why?

When we talk of sustainable transport or making cities for people or walkability, car makers are a big big part of the mix. Without their support, no infrastructure, no policy level framework will encourage change in culture and behavior. You can force changes and disincent the car owners from using cars, but that will only go so far…until it doesn’t hurt the pockets.

Behavior Change

Real , sustainable and long lasting change comes from behavior change. A driver will want to let the pedestrian pass by before his car does, a motorist will want to respect the pedestrian walking on the side of the road. An office goer will want to walk on the street, because he feels safe and will not get run over, a lady will want to go out walking to the market just 200 meters away for groceries because she knows, she won’t be harrassed or mugged and motorists will respect her.

Motorists need to understand that they too are pedestrians and pedestrians are motorists too. This mutual understanding will bring walkability by default. But it won’t happen unless car companies who sell dreams, aspirations and pride of owning a car, change. The best would be to change their business models all together – lease instead of sell. But that’s a far cry.

Until now the safety of the passengers has been the priority in designing cars – why not make pedestrians a priority and see what design changes happen. At least they can begin by:

  • Making the buyer aware of not only the comfort/economy/safety of the passengers and different widgets of the car, but also of the risks associated of driving irresponsibly. Won’t it be great, if they add this line – “This is a machine that can kill other people. You have the power to kill. Use wisely.”
  • Make obtaining a Driver’s License with standard procedures across all cities of India
  • Following rules of driving – what yellow line stands for, what dashed line means, what the solid white line means – in short pratice lane driving giving precedence to pedestrians

It is not co-incidence that our behavior on roads translates exactly to our behavior in our lives. I have lived in Japan for 7 years and the internal roads are extremely narrow. But motorists follow rules and this automatically ensures the safety of pedestrians – they feel safe walking – not on the sidewalk but on the side of the road itself (side of the white line, where no motorists are allowed). I enjoyed my walks everyday to the train station (4 kms to and fro). I took in the smells, the sights, the sounds of the streets. I made social connections. I felt connected – really connected. I have been in Delhi, India for 31 years and my entire adult life I haven’t made the connection to the streets – why – because I stopped venturing on my 2 fores (which was extremely inconvenient) and got on the 4 wheels.

Cities that encourage walking are the ones that retain their culture or rather remake their culture – rest become the so-called engines of growth driving their economies by building transport infrastructure for cars. Wasn’t balance the age-old key…?

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