Right to walk: Where are the footpaths?
Are we fast losing the right to walk in our cities and towns? It is while walking that a place is best appreciated as it establishes a unique connect to the city and its character. More importantly, walking is the most basic form of mobility. It is freedom; a right every human being should have.??In the Calcutta (now Kolkata) of the 1980s and 1990s, footpaths adorned the streets; they were an integral part of life - be it socialising, shopping or just walking. There was safety on the streets. They were the city’s lifeline during the frequent shutdowns that were called in the city.??Cut to Bengaluru 2014. One shudders to walk on the city’s streets. There are hardly any footpaths! The ones that do exist are in a deplorable condition, unsafe, and provide a connection to nothing. Connected, well designed and maintained footpaths along the streets: Are they an endangered species? Does anyone care about them any more???
Jane Jacobs, the celebrated US urban activist and author of the 1950s-60s, rightly inferred in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”: Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvellous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes.?
The benefits of footpaths for accessibility to opportunities, mobility, public health, environment, recreation and economic development cannot be underestimated. Statistics indicate that 80 percent of the urban population needs footpaths, either because they walk to work or do other activities. Footpaths also provide the first and last mile connectivity to transit stops. Unfortunately, mobility projects that have become synonymous with road widening or flyovers and underpasses rarely include footpaths or pedestrian walkways.?What will it take to make people feel safe and good while walking in our cities today? We propose the following agenda:?
Non-motorised transport (NMT) planning: In September, the Chennai Corporation announced the adoption and implementation of its NMT Policy that aims at zero pedestrian fatalities. The establishment of an NMT Cell, a dedicated and well-capacitated agency, is urgently required in each city. This Cell should draft and implement a city-level NMT Plan, including a pedestrian network plan focussing on providing footpaths (and their maintenance) - a must for every city. This network needs to be aligned with other plans for the city and should ensure that footpaths connect to local employment, recreation and retail facilities.??
Good design: Having footpaths is not enough unless they are designed to provide safe, comfortable mobility options to all, including people of different age groups as well as differently-abled people. This means that they need to be free of barriers (such as transformers), with safe crossings on streets, bridges, and railroads - and safely segregated from fast-moving vehicular traffic (at entry-exit points of buildings, island refuges at wide road crossings et al.). In this regard, the barriers that have been constructed on footpaths in New Delhi, to prevent two-wheeled vehicles from encroaching on footpaths, is a strategy that can and should be implemented across the country. Footpaths also need to have adequate lighting, trees providing shade, places to sit down, toilet facilities and waste bins. In this regard, there are a number of pedestrian design guidelines - for example Delhi’s Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure Planning & Engineering Centre (UTTIPEC) that can be followed.?
Not only a path but a space: Vibrant streets make one return to them again and again. Making allowances for suitable commercial and recreational activity along sidewalks, combined with human-scale building design, will help create an active space rather than make it deserted and unsafe. These designs need to be sensitive to age, gender and ethnic identity to make sidewalks a welcoming space.?
Maintenance and monitoring: The notion of a footpath as an important public space as well as a “right” has to come with a sense of ownership from both civic authorities and citizens. There exist established codes for construction and/or maintenance of sidewalks and curbs by adjacent property owners and also for liability of accidents happening on footpaths due to maintenance failure, such as in the US. Variants of such citizen partnership should be explored while being cognizant of societal complexities and transparency of processes. But abandoning footpaths should be a “no-no” at any cost.??
Yes, it is a long list and needs dedicated funds but, more importantly, decision makers need to understand the benefits of putting people first when planning cities. Cars are a sign of economic growth - and a pedestrian-friendly city is a sign of a sensitive city respecting human rights.