Delhi is currently in the midst of the second stage of a social experiment it had embarked on in the beginning of 2016 – “The Odd-Even Plan”. What started as a plan to counter pollution has now turned into a plan to ease congestion. While this is definitely not a sustainable long term solution it has nevertheless provided Delhiites with a fifteen day period of relief from constant jams and all the negative externalities that come with it.
However, is there a way this idea of a congestion free Indian city could become the new normal? There is if we start looking at cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Zurich, and Hamburg for inspiration. These cities have been molded to encourage the use of the oldest form of human travel – walking. For example Helsinkiin Finland plans to make car ownership “irrelevant” by 2025 by developing a dense network of walkable and interconnected neighborhoods with mixed commercial and residential use. Similarly Hamburg in Germany, which was named the “European Green Capital” in 2011 has ambitious plans to make most of its urban spaces fully accessible by foot or bike while keeping 40% of the city’s land dedicated to green public spaces. In both Zurich and Copenhagen it is possible to get around the city without a car while Amsterdam is known to move at a “bike’s pace” – the average speed in the capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands barely crosses 30km/h.
Back here our large cities in India need to be redeveloped and redesigned for people. They need to be more walkable. As per the dictionary “Walkability refers to how conducive a particular area is to pedestrian movement. This includes factors such as the availability of footpaths and sidewalks, amount of traffic, building accessibility, safety and other components.”
Keeping our current realities in mind the 21st century city should score high on walkability. We must reimagine the idea of what a city means. A city should be a densely packed unit where work, home, leisure and commerce must be so close to one another to make daily travel on foot (or bicycle) viable and travel by cars and other motorized systems of transport unnecessary. Thus, ideally the more the people in a city then less the number of cars there should be.
For this to happen urban planners, builders, civil engineers and architects need to come together. Walkability is an important concept in sustainable urban design which goes far beyond just a simple act of travel. By walking you become part of the city and experience it in totality instead of just moving from one bubble to another. Walking helps foster the sense of community and the creation of public spaces. It is one of the most democratic modes of travel where each individual gets to share equal space with another.According to the American Journal of Public Health, walkable neighborhoods increase individual and collective social capital. Greater social capital in turn has been linked with “better community health, decreased crime rates and even increased economic activity”.
Given the advantages that walkability has it is extremely unfortunate that we have confused urbanization with motorization. Cities and urban spaces need to be built for humans and not just cars. As India embarks on its journey towards rapid urbanization we need to find inspiration from the European model of urbanization and not the American. While walking behavior will always emerge through an interplay between conscious decisions, habits, social conditioning, situations, cultural traditions and weather patterns, a city’s urban planners, government and developers can nudge people to walk more by creating an ecosystem environment.
One of the biggest challenge faced by “walkability” in India is the lack of infrastructure – most of our roads are simply not safe or convenient for pedestrians. We need to demarcate pedestrian only areas and build mixed-use, walkable communities. This will also make it easy for Indians to battle the weather conditions which makes walking a challenge. More people out on the road will also make it safer for everyone. A large reason why a lot of physically fit people especially women choose to drive even short distances (less than 4kms) is usually because of the feeling of being vulnerable and unsafe.
We have reached a point in the human civilization where the decisions we take in the next few years have the potential to determine what human life will be like 50-60 years from now. Walking is critical both to save our external environment as well as internal. We must start burning our fat over fossil fuels. To make that a reality developers and urban planners should aim to create the city of the future which ideally would not require the use of cars to access the necessities of life.