May 06, 2009

The number is stunning. Even today nearly one third of daily travel trips in Delhi, and more than half of Mumbai are walk trips. In most other Indian cities people who commute by walking out number those who use their vehicles. Yet, the walkers remain invisible in the maze of motorized traffic that chokes our roads. Pedestrians walk in extremely unsafe and hostile conditions, in constant conflict with motorized traffic and are easy victims to crashes and accidents. Countless people trip over pot holes, slip on sludge, or are grievously hurt by bumping into numerous obstacles strewn along the footpaths. There is continuous erosion of space for walkers even though every journey begins and ends with a walking trip. Our civic authorities have little respect for them.

The high share of walking in Indian cities has come out sharply from the nation-wide assessment carried out by the US based consultant body, Wilbur Smith for the Union ministry of urban development on traffic and transportation policies and strategies in urban areas in 2008. The share of walkers can vary between 16 to 57 per cent depending on the nature and size of the city.

It is ironical that despite such high share of walk trips the cities are not walkable. Walk ability simply reflects the quality of walking facilities and conditions that make walking safe, comfortable and convenient. In any typical city the pedestrian facilities and network includes side walks, path, crosswalk, stairways, curb cuts, ramps and transit stops. These need to be well designed, intricately connected to help pedestrians to take the shortest direct route to destinations and feel safe.

But how walkable are our cities? The Wilbur Smith study has indexed 30 cities of all sizes on walkability and assessed them based on availability of foot paths on major arterial roads, and overall facility rating by pedestrians themselves. The perception of pedestrians has also been gauged on availability of footpath and its quality, obstruction, maintenance, lighting, security from crime, safety in crossings etc. Alow rank indicates inadequate and substandard pedestrian facilities. The national average index is 0.52. The best in the country according to this ranking is Chandigarh with 0.9. This is in sharp contrast to cities like London that score 1.5 to1.7 and have active policies to encourage pedestrian traffic.

Walkers simply don’t matter in planning approaches. This is grossly evident from the state of sidewalks that are being steadily chipped away to provide more space for carriage ways of motorized traffic. Wilbur Smith study has found that the percentage of the road with pedestrian footpaths runs hardly in 30 per cent in mostcities. Even the little that exists is clogged with hawkers, vendors, urinals and electric transformers in unplanned manner. Cities have marginalised the needs ofthe pedestrians and given priority to the needs of the automobiles.