is walkability a right? how would this work in india?

Sarah Goodyear in Atlantic Cities asks today if walkability should be conceived as a right.  She's talking, though, about India:

To call attention to the appalling situation faced by pedestrians in the city of Chennai, the newspaper The Hindu has launched a campaign called “Right to Walk,” which aims to "reclaim our city’s footpaths" and "goad local officials to act."

So far, dozens of readers using the Twitter hashtag #righttowalk have sent in photos and detailed accounts of sidewalks completely blocked by trash, parked cars and motorbikes, vendors, road signs, and construction.

All good.  In the US, which is much more accustomed to the language of rights, the argument should be even more effective.

As for India: obviously I sympathize with the pedestrians there, having been one myself. It's typically a brutal urban environment, and arguably even worse for cyclists, who are legion.

Dscf2117But one fact of life about the Indian city is that it's very difficult to keep any public space empty enough to offer unimpeded transport by any mode. Just as any unfenced patch of urban land is quickly claimed as somebody's home, an empty patch of street tends to be seen as available for either transport or business purposes, and naturally evolves a locally best use that may not be transportation at all.

Even the car lanes of Indian streets can be gradually reduced, in width and number, though a purely natural and unregulated process. The process goes like this: (1) so many people walk and bike in the curb lanes that motorists start avoiding them, (2) people set up tables in the curb lanes and sell things to the people walking there, and cars begin stopping to make purchases, (3) eventually the whole lane fills up with a mix of peds and commercial activity and the occasional random patch of customer parking, even to the point that durable private structures get built in the public right-of-way. In Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, I once toured a former 4-lane street that had gradually turned into a narrow 2-lane street through this gradual process that Indian planners call "encroachment."  

Key take-away:  Developing-world infrastructure has to be self-enforcing of its assignment of space, and this is a tough design problem that runs contrary to the instincts of developed-world urbanists.  Otherwise, the natural jostling process by which uses compete for available vacant space tends to prevail over all but the most vigorous demarcations.  This is why developing-world Bus Rapid Transit, and any other single-mode transport infrastructure, must have hard physical barriers to its right-of-way in order to function at all.  Otherwise, space is gradually lost to the sheer pressure from other uses.  

(The problem is especially severe for transit lanes because these only function of they are literally empty most of the time, thus allowing each bus to move through rapidly.  And in the Indian city, empty space looks like available space.)

The process by which available space gets used is comparable in some ways to the self-organization of public space that characterizes the famous developed-world shared spaces, but in India the process tends to be much more responsive to immediate physical and economic forces, including the urgency of commercial activity and the danger presented by the motor vehicle.  Cars do retreat in the face of a sufficiently large volume of pedestrians, bicycles, and informal commerce, but the struggle along this ever-moving frontier is certainly not safe, or pleasant.  

And I'm not sure how defining a "right" would change that.  Perhaps it would.

8 Responses to is walkability a right? how would this work in india?

  1. JJJ July 8, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    You seem to imply that this is true of all developing countries. Not at all. Where in latin america do you see this phenomenon? Yes, there are favelas, but they develop on open land, not land developed for other purposes like transportation.
    Youll note the same is true of the roads. While traffic in Sao Paulo may be chaotic, the simple practice of white lines keeps people in their lane. In southeast asia, nobody stays in their lane, ever.
    Its not a economic/developing issue, its a culture one.

  2. Dante Smith July 9, 2013 at 1:27 am #

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  3. BBnet3000 July 9, 2013 at 3:36 am #

    “This is why developing-world Bus Rapid Transit, and any other single-mode transport infrastructure, must have hard physical barriers to its right-of-way in order to function at all.”
    This is true anywhere I have been in the US as well, with the difference being in the US cars trump all.
    Seems to me that this is partly symptomatic of the extreme lack of space in Indian cities. My understanding is that they tend to have really ridiculous limits on built FAR. This is not the case elsewhere as you can see in the example of Brazilian favelas (and other areas labeled slums, some of which are actually not), which tend to be multi-story buildings on narrow lanes for an overall very high FAR.

  4. Carl July 9, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    I’ve never been to Sao Paulo, but I’ve been to several places in Latin America where the lines are routinely ignored, vendors set up near the curb, although never structures in the ROW. But I agree it is cultural – since I’ve seen the same in Italy.
    I usually think ‘right’ is completely overused in our lexicon. However, humans do have a right to transport themselves – its a necessity of survival whether you’re referring to primitive or modern humans. And this right would exist but for interference by others – first by erecting fences and privatizing land, then by essentially restricting travel in public spaces to only those who choose motorized transport.

  5. Voony July 10, 2013 at 1:11 am #

    Interesting enough, the Chennai pedestrisn situation is here presented basically in the same term it has been for the Lille pedestrain in 1974 in this video:
    Sorry it is in french, but the video illustrates the pedestrain vs car conflict, but more importantly present the pedestrianization of Lille as primarly an effort to resolve transportation problems.

    “This is why developing-world Bus Rapid Transit, and any other single-mode transport infrastructure, must have hard physical barriers to its right-of-way in order to function at all.”

    …and still one has to admit rail based systems work usually better than bus based one: eveything happen like the great predictability of the train ROW, as well as the recognition that it cannot deviate of it, is acting at the advanatge of the train.
    The flip side of the coin, is that the train is not expected to go at much greater speed than other traffic..That will be typically 15km/h in a pedestrain environment (but it could be also the case of the bus)

  6. Ben Smith July 10, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    I couldn’t help think but think of Death and Life when reading this piece. In chapter 18 (the one which focuses the most on transportation, which is why I’m able to recall it), Jacobs talks about the erosion of cities by cars, and how it can be countered by the encroachment by the people.
    In this case, it seems that it may have gone too far the other way. While Jacobs applauded seeing road space being taken over by pedestrians because sidewalks were too crowded, such as in front of a movie theatre, if it came to the point that nearly the entire roadway was consumed by pedestrians then perhaps it is more of a case of overcrowding.
    Then again, perhaps she would have applauded what is happening in India and the developing world right now. It is hard to say since she is no longer with us, but this piece did remind me of those arguments of her book.

  7. Shaun Cleaver July 14, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    I have recently relocated from Toronto, Canada to Lusaka, Zambia, two large and growing cities that share the commonality of widespread civic obsession about intra-city mobility. Since my main method of transportation in both locales is a pedestrian-transit combination, I have been experiencing the phenomenon of walkability in these two otherwise very different places quite personally. Simultaneously I have been observing (and participating in) the larger discussions about to more clearly identify the problems and seek solutions.
    Relating these experiences and observations to the discussion on the “Right to Walkability,” as expressed on this blog and in the Atlantic Cities, there are two issues that I find conspicuously under-developed: 1) discussion about established urban form, especially the integration of uses, and 2) consideration of “class,” particularly as it relates to the narratives of what is desirable and the practicalities of what is attainable.
    Interestingly, in both Toronto and Lusaka the discussions on mobility are primarily framed as being issues of “congestion.” From this common starting point the discussions diverge, and in placing them next to one another I see urban form and “class” as key elements of divergence. In Toronto, where most of the region’s surface area was developed post-World War II, the pervasive urban form is one where residential and commercial areas are separate but designed to be connected through the use of private automobiles. (I presume most readers of Human Transit are very familiar with this phenomenon, and that many, like me, grew up in an era where this form was already entrenched.) With the continued growth of the region creating a situation where Torontonians collectively agree that there is a transportation problem, the problem definition and the solutions related to it can largely be lumped into two camps: those who advocate an expansion of the post-WWII status quo of separated uses and auto-centric transportation, and those who advocate increased mixed-use neighbourhoods with greater walkability, cyclability and transit use. What is notable in Toronto is that neither vision is defined by “class”: each possibility has support across the economic spectrum and from an unclassifiable myriad of different social groups. Leaving aside the views on transportation policy and focusing on urban form, the influence of “class” in Toronto’s situation relates to what is practically attainable to citizens of various means given the current distribution. Given that mixed-use/walkable areas are desirable but less abundantly available, it is more expensive to live or do business these areas and we are thus seeing a changing distribution of affluence and poverty where Torontonians of modest means are relegated to areas of poor walkability.
    Again, I suspect that this situation is familiar to most blog readers, but I present it nonetheless as a base of comparison in order to more concretely discuss the situation in Lusaka (which can then be compared and contrasted to Chennai or other locations in the Global South by those who know those settings better).
    Now to Lusaka: with the growth of Zambia’s economy there has been an increase in automobile ownership (similar to India) and the emergence of parking lot-surrounded shopping malls as a pervasive urban form for commercial activity. Unsurprisingly, these two phenomena are related to each other, and with “class,” in the sense that the shopping malls cater to a high-end market that is able to access them by private vehicle. Interestingly, according to contemporary Zambian narratives, shopping malls are seen solutions to the problem of “congestion”, a rationale that was at first incomprehensible to my Canadian frame of mind. With more experience in Lusaka, however, I can relate to the crowded discomfort of the traditional commercial district of “Town” (west of Cairo Road), an area that conforms to Jarrett’s description where ‘available’ space is quickly occupied. In this sense, and according to this rationale, the new shopping malls do indeed offer better walkability. This is only true, however, you arrive by car, creating a perverse scenario where a vehicle is necessary to stroll and where the solution to one form of congestion aggravates another form.
    As best I can tell, the narrative in support of separate land uses connected by private vehicles is widely supported by Zambians, but this ideal is only practically attainable for a certain percentage of the populace. Accordingly, the development form is clearly driven by “class” with affluent residential areas generally void of commercial activity.
    I am currently an anomaly in this equation; affluent in Zambia because of my access to foreign currency, but discordant to my economic class with regards to mobility, as I prefer walking. My daily realities are very different from Jarrett’s reflections and better symbolized by the photograph on the original Atlantic Cities article: the photo presents a road of fast-moving cars where the only apparent pedestrian space is an uneven drainage ditch cover. And the cover is cracked and broken. For me, here in Lusaka in 2013, the impediment to my “Right to Walk” is rarely the congestion of the walking area, but almost constantly the absence infrastructure to make walking anything less than an all-terrain adventure. In this frustration I am joined by the domestic employees of my neighbours and the Lusakans from the outlying compounds* who pass through this area as a more direct route on their long treks from home to work, or an alternative to packing into a mini-bus to sit in traffic. Unlike me, I suspect that most of my pedestrian company would rather see the situation improve through a change in their mode of transport; not through a change in infrastructure for their current mode.
    *In Zambian vernacular, “a compound” is a poor and densely populated urban area.
    According to my experiences in two very different metropolitan areas, I see the value of walking is highly dependent upon views in support of or as alternatives to current urban forms. The possibilities of actually being able to walk enjoyably (or the necessity of having to walk even if it’s miserable) can be determined by one’s economic status. The interplay of these notions can coalesce to determine how communities frame issues of transportation, livability, and land use, all of which will then impact future possibilities.
    Seeing (the affluent parts of) Lusaka transform into the urban form that I grew up despising in southern Ontario is rather painful, but for the most part I can understand why this is occurring. In reading about demands for walkability in India, however, I remain confused as to why this would even occur, given that the situation does not fit onto any of the contextual maps with which I am familiar. In particular I am exceedingly interested in the influence of “class” in that discussion; thinking about the types of people who are walking and the extent to which walking understood to be a desirable option, a practical necessity, something between the two, or something else entirely.

  8. Jarrett July 15, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Thanks so much for this comment.
    First, when you use the term “class”, putting it in quotation marks as though you’re uncomfortable with it, I’d suggest using the word income, which doesn’t need quotes because it’s much more factual, and because it also captures the reality that income is a spectrum while class is an arbitrary set of categories imposed on that spectrum.
    The situation you describe in Toronto is the situation of successful North American cities generally. It is interesting, though, that the result is the same for low-income pedestrians in both places.
    I would welcome a guest post on Lusaka’s transit as you experience it.
    Cheers, Jarrett