A senior colleague who recently downloaded a walking tracker on his smart phone is proud that he is clocking almost 11 kilometres every day. He gives full credit to Delhi’s weather.
In Delhi, summer is harsh and monsoon, messy. But except for a few freezing weeks, Delhi’s winter and spring are the perfect time for outdoor activity. It is now that you see hordes of Delhiites heading to India Gate, Lodhi Gardens, Dilli Haat and the city’s numerous open spaces.
Whatever be the perception, stats show that Delhi residents do walk. According to the 2011 census, 22% of Delhiites — mostly the poor and the working class — walk to work while only 14% ride two-wheelers and 11% drive cars to their workplace. A survey by a health insurance company, which interviewed 1,000 people in 2014, said that compared to 66% in Mumbai, almost 80% of people in Delhi prefer to walk in the morning.
One motivator is Delhi’s vast open spaces. A report by property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle says that Delhi offers 15 sqm per person as compared to 1.95 sqm open space per capita in Mumbai. It is way better than the standard of 9 sqm per capita prescribed by United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Most of us, however, walk either to commute or to stay fit. But how about going for a walk for no reason other than to go for a walk? Purposeless walking is an acknowledged activity. The French described such walkers as flâneur or the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street.
Experts say purposeless walking is best for creative simulation. In his 2015 book The Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros pointed out how Nietzsche, for instance, wandered the mountainside to write and then famously said that it was only ideas gained from walking that had any worth. Rousseau walked in order to think. Kant walked through his hometown every day “to escape the compulsion of thought”.
A BBC article, ‘The slow death of purposeless walking’, said Wordsworth wandered long hours in the Lake District, and Dickens covered up to 20 miles a day. An experiment by the University of Stanford showed that almost 100% of those who walked outside generated at least one novel, high-quality idea compared with 50% of those seated indoors.
Britain observes May as the National Walking month when voluntary organisations motivate people to walk to school, work, or just ramble around the city streets and the countryside. Delhi never thought of such an initiative but private groups do organise heritage, food, ghost and general city walks.
Businesslike or purposeless, walkers are always a huge majority. But they are never a priority for our city planners. British journalist Sam Miller, who explored some of the Capital’s less celebrated destinations in his book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, said it was not a walker-friendly city.
Few would disagree. A study by Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi found that footpaths were available in only 55% of the total road length that was surveyed. Only 10-15% of the total road stretch had footpaths built according to the norms on height and width. None of the stretches had a continuous footpath. Huge tracts were just devoured by encroachers.
In another study in 2012, CSE found that the best pavements are in places where they are used the least. At upscale Aurangzeb Road (now APJ Kalam Road), the super-wide pavements were used by three persons in 10 minutes. In Govindpuri, a working class neighbourhood, footpaths were non-existent and 100 people walked past rather dangerously in just five minutes.
Not surprisingly, Delhi in 2015 reported 1,350 road fatalities. Of these, 567 were pedestrians.
Celebrating one year in office, the AAP government has, among other things, promised “angiography of Delhi’s arteries”. Some basic masonry solutions, clearing footpaths of encroachments and providing tree-shaded roads is all it requires to make the city walker friendly.
Like parks, we need to reclaim our streets and pavements. For walking is lot more than a convenience or fitness issue. While stoking creativity, it also turns you an explorer in your own city. Particularly in Delhi, if you can’t or don’t walk, as Miller concluded, large parts of this city of many layers will remain invisible to you.