Gurugram needs ‘pedestrian first’ policy to make streets walkable
Over the past year or two, I have had the opportunity to spend time in cities — London and Cambridge — which are imminently walkable. There, I walk to colleges and pubs, for meetings and surgery. I walk for the sheer joy of it. The skies are clear and blue. The traffic is organised and polite, by which I mean vehicles actually stop for you at zebra crossings. There are pavements, and they are mostly safe. I walk everywhere, all the time, anytime — even when I need to get to the coach station at midnight, or after studying late at night in the library. It’s liberating. And it has been a revelation. The exercise in the clean, crisp air — more so in Cambridge — is invigorating, whetting my usually poor appetite, infusing an energy that is severely lacking when I am back home.
One reason for my depleting energy is that Gurugram lacks walkability. I try. I don my walking shoes late in the evenings, when the sun is softer, kinder, but the pollution index is high. Somehow, making strides while breathing the foul air barely kept at bay with a pollution mask, and assaulted by honks and other noise doesn’t quite cut it. I return not revitalised, but usually nursing a headache.
It saddens me. It wasn’t always like that. I have spent my childhood in cities, including Delhi. We walked to school, to the gurudwara, or to get our weekly ration, even in the scorching heat with huge canopies shading our path. The walks were inevitably pleasant: There were ice-cream carts along the way; we saw birds; we met street dogs. I remember shimmying up a tree, when my parents’ attention was diverted — to steal some raw jamuns. Cars were fewer, streets were safer and less noisier. And when the rains let up, you could see rainbows colour the sky.
Indian cities were made for walking, given that much of the workforce in the country walks and cycles. They still do, a survey by Raahgiri (the movement for a vehicle-free street) found that 60% of road users in Gurugram are pedestrians and cyclists. But as cities like Gurugram developed rapidly, these spaces shrunk. For example, Golf Course Road has about 16 lanes for cars, but not even 16 inches have been spared for pedestrians.
Transport systems are designed for cars and speed, with little thought for pedestrians or cyclists. Trees, wide pavements, benches — all that makes a pedestrian walk comfortable, is less, making room for cars.
A pleasure walk in Gurugram — and sadly in most cities — ranks as a high-risk activity. Crossing a road with speeding trucks and cars is a nightmare, and dangerous — around 50% of road traffic deaths in our cities are of
pedestrians. As many as 168 pedestrians lost their lives in 2018 in road accidents in Gurugram. It’s unpleasant and unhealthy with noise and air pollution so high that doctors actually advise you to stop physical activity. Liquor shops spilling onto the road that doesn’t give you a very safe feeling, especially if you are a woman. A few times I have tried to walk outside the borders of my gated colony, I have been leered at, flashed, leaving me feeling insecure and vulnerable.
What I hate is the acute paucity of trees. The few that remain are hacked. The lack of trees, and other open natural spaces — woods, wetlands, meadows, lakes — robs the city of its beauty, and turns it into a ‘heat island’. It also hampers the essential services that these ecosystems provide.
All great cities aspire to be ‘walkable’. London actually has a walking and cycling commissioner. Its first Walking Action Plan was unveiled in 2018, with ambitions to become the most walkable city in the world.
Walkability implies safe and people-friendly streets, clean air, healthy citizens, and public spaces, where one can move without fear. What’s more, streets where walking is easy, safe, enjoyable is where businesses thrive — they are more economically productive than any other development.
Gurugram has miles to go before it can be walkable, it needs to put ‘Pedestrians First’ in its policies, design and development plans.
@prernabindra (Bindra is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. She is the author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis)