Pedestrian Pondering

Whether as a flaneur or for commute, walking as an activity triggers emotional responses. Is Delhi really the city that encourages walking?

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As a child, I was never one to enjoy walking. I just saw it as an unnecessary deceleration in the way of getting where we wanted to. At that age, walking was a mostly a way to get from one place to the next. There are no memories of causal strolls other than the few we occasionally took as a family after dinner. Moreover, as a child, I always felt disadvantaged in size and ability in comparison to adults. They could always go faster and farther and it was a pain to keep up. The idea of walking made me grumpy.

During adolescence, walking was still a chore. My adolescence is dominated by memories of school, studies and slogging. When I think of walking at that age, I can only remember trudging under the Indian sun with a ponderous schoolbag. Walking to the bus-stop in the morning, walking from the bus stop in the evening, walking between the odd number of tuitions that we all went to, as part of the convention in high school.

My good relations with walking began after I went to college, where I had an environment for strolling. I took the habit of taking strolls often, both solitary and with company, around our small but lush campus in Ahmedabad. I like the idea of a solitary stroll. It eliminates the worry of having to match your pace with anyone else, which I believe is an important factor that could influence the intensity and the progression of conversation. If the walking-rhythm doesn’t match, one of the walkers is forced into an uncomfortable step, possibly hindering their participation in the conversation itself.

Walking became an affair of the heart for me when I went to Europe as a student. I travelled across Europe and needless to say, I walked unabatedly. I walked everywhere and anywhere I could.The decision to walk, shaped the way my tours turned out. I stuck to nobody’s schedules, I followed nobody’s routes (although I did use Google’s maps for orientation). I stopped anywhere I wanted, anytime and for however long I wanted to. Walking made me feel empowered and independent. It made way for enough spontaneity and gave space to accommodate the amusements along the way.

Today I live in Delhi and walking is nothing more than a mode of Active Commute for me. Although active commuting as a concept is pitched around the aspects of health and exercise, it’s not been about that for me. It’s only been about the small sense of self-reliance in daily life. I have one thing less to figure out every morning. Be it rain, shine, traffic, Uber/Auto rickshaw drivers’ strike, I can get to work and back, unhindered. Although it is only a small part in my day’s often transient schedule, I cling to the feeling of being unchallenged. With walking, even arriving feels more rewarding. The ability to cover the same distance in lesser time than yesterday gives a sense of achievement that a pedestrian alone can claim.

I’ve realized that while on one hand, walking makes me feel supremely independent, there are times when it makes me feel extremely vulnerable. Especially as a female person. A leisurely walk to work in the morning becomes a race to get home as quickly as possible on the way back, after the sun has gone down. I don’t let my attention drift or my eyes wander when I walk uncrowded streets late in the evening. Darkness is but a dispensable factor in an assault against the solitary female pedestrian. For now, my defense is an air of aggressiveness that I put on. Balled up fists, scowling face and a marching stride.

This aside, there are problems that all pedestrians face, regardless of gender. Much has been written about how cars took over the roads from pedestrians in the wake of the 19th century. As a sequel to that, unregulated parking in cities like Delhi tell the story of how cars have taken over even the pedestrian paths. Encroachment of pedestrian paths in the name of vehicle parking, forces the pedestrian to share the road with dangerously intolerant traffic. One mustn’t forget to count the odd number of small businesses including vegetable, fruit, tea stalls that thrive on the footpath. All these contribute to the worsening of pedestrian-driver relations in the clash for space.

It is an irony that now, pedestrianism is a neo-urban luxury. Successful pedestrianisation operations in cities like Copenhagen are trailblazers in urban design practices. India is still at the level of attempting to make roads safer for pedestrians. There’s a long way to go before we think of pedestrian centered planning. Till then, our streets will have a million marching Madhus, minorly annoyed about their moseys being impeded.

Madhu is a researcher with Treemouse, curious to understand how fibers of behavior weave to build functioning fabrics of complex systems. She is constantly thinking about how design can adapt to stay relevant, beyond consumerism. She likes to rebel, challenge paradigms and look at design and design practices critically. Madhu is rather funny and entertains the office with her puns. She loves Broccoli and is fascinated by anything Japanese.

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