Sunday, February 15, 2009

Op-Ed: Vinita Vishwas Deshmukh on Let pedestrians walk

Let pedestrians walk

Last Saturday, several citizen groups held a Protest Walk demanding pedestrian space on roads. Sujit Patwardhan, who steered this protest stated in the press release that, ``since Ganeshkhind Road and also other roads in Pune have been widened, it has become increasingly difficult for pedestrians to cross the roads safely. Traffic speeds have also increased and made the situation worse. We have been asking the PMC engineers to have designs that take into account the needs of pedestrians and even cyclists and not just treat them as an afterthought. At many of the crossings of Ganeshkhind Road, we have given specific suggestions and drawings. In spite of assurances not much has happened. Roads continue to be unsafe for walking and cycling, while auto vehicles are moving faster on widened cement concrete roads. We have therefore decided that it is high time to protest on the street itself.''

Urban cities in the USA and Europe have witnessed the social menace of having encouraged private vehicles by building more roads and flyovers and yet having bumper-to-bumper traffic - which implies that no matter how many roads you widen or increase, the problem of road congestion is incessant. London, since 2003, charges congestion fees for bringing out private vehicles on roads. The congestion charge is a fee for motorists travelling within those parts of London designated as the Congestion Charge Zone (CCZ). The objective of levying these charges – eight pounds each day for driving through demarcated congested zones between 7 am and 6 pm - is to raise funds for investment in London's transport system. Penalty for not paying the charges varies between 60 to 180 pounds. However, at least London has enviable footpaths. And a good public transport system.

Many cities in developed countries are resorting to alternate people-friendly transport with facilities like cycle paths, wide footpaths for pedestrians and an efficient public transport system. The rich world has realised that space for people on public spaces has to directly do with their `happiness' thus nullifying symptoms of suicidal tendencies and depression.

Many in Pune would say – how is it possible here? They are not off the mark – a pathetic public transport system and roads which have no space for pedestrians and cyclists have resulted in double trouble. However, a revolutionary change can be brought about on streets, as demonstrated by Enrique Penalosa, the dynamic mayor of Bogota, Columbia, who converted a vehicle-infested city into a people-friendly city through wide footpaths, cycle tracks and the famous trans-Milano public transport system. In three years flat!

Penalosa who is also a visiting scholar in New York University has become an icon for building culture on the streets and has an amazing philosophy behind making a people-friendly, rather than a vehicle-friendly city. When serving as mayor of Bogotá, he realigned the focus of city planning and policies to a new priority - equal access of all people to public spaces, services, and facilities. Peñalosa believes that "high-quality public pedestrian space is evidence of a true democracy at work.

For an entire day, Bogota - a city of 6.5 million people bans cars from its streets, opening up public spaces for all people to walk, bicycle, and enjoy the city. The first city-wide Car-Free Day was introduced in 2001. By this, Peñalosa hoped to demonstrate the possibilities and benefits of alternative forms of transportation, encouraged people to bike and walk, and combated the stigma associated with bicycles as "vehicles of the poor". Writes Penalosa, ``We took a vote, and 83 percent of the public told us they wanted to have car-free days more often. Getting people out of their cars is a means of social integration. You have the upper-income person sitting next to the cleaning lady on the bus.'' This resulted in a public referendum instituting the Car-Free Day as an annual event and banning all cars from the city during peak hours by the year 2015.

Penalosa writes: When I was elected mayor of Bogotá and got to city hall, I was handed a transportation study that said the most important thing the city could do was to build an elevated highway at a cost of $600 million. Instead, we installed a bus system that carries 700,000 people a day at a cost of $300 million. We created hundreds of pedestrian-only streets, parks, plazas, and bike paths, planted trees, and got rid of cluttering commercial signs. We constructed the longest pedestrian-only street in the world. It may seem crazy, because this street goes through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Bogotá, and many of the surrounding streets aren't even paved. But we chose not to improve the streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians. I believe - you are important—not because you're rich or because you have a Ph.D., but because you are human." If people are treated as special, as sacred even, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society.

Penalosa interestingly states:"In my country, we are just learning that sidewalks (footpaths) are relatives of parks - not passing lanes for cars."

Pune streets have become inaccessible to children and senior citizens. For vehicle owners too, driving has become a nightmare. And it's only getting worse. Pune needs to do a mini-Bogota at least for which not only the municipal commissioner and corporators need to take a step forward (the first step has been taken in the form of parking charges for 40 roads) but citizens need to give unflinching support.

Vinita Vishwas Deshmukh , Editor
Editorial in Intelligent Pune issue of February 13 2009

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See www.messages.newmobility.org for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.

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