Walkability is one of the key criteria that make a city liveable, environment friendly, community oriented, salutary and less dependent on motorised transportation. If we walk to our workplaces, shopping malls or walk our children to schools, we have a well-organised congestion free city because we are not solely dependent on environment polluting or harmful smoke emitting vehicles to reach our destination. Studies in the USA show that a typical resident of a walkable urban area weighs 6-10 pounds less than the person living in a sprawling metropolis or suburb where automobile based lifestyle demands less physical activities.
Studies also reveal that if we walk as part of our daily travel, we are most likely to develop a strong attachment for our city which again leads us to keep our neighbourhood trim or protect a historic building when it faces the prospect of being demolished due to profit driven real estate development. Walking is one of the most effective ways of knowing a city and its communities from a close proximity. Therefore, walkability is an important yardstick to measure a city’s liveability.Is Dhaka a walkable city? In one word, all of us will say “no”. Let us throw some light upon this burning issue. Dhaka city’s footpaths are almost discontinuous. We can’t walk from point A to point B by using one continuous loop of footpath. Almost all footpaths are typically occupied by vendors, makeshift tea stalls, illegally stowed construction materials and abrupt open drains. Walking, therefore, turns out to be difficult and the footpaths of Dhaka are not at all pedestrian friendly.
Dhaka city’s polluted air, rancid smell and pervasive lack of cleanliness discourage one to walk on its footpaths or streets. The low income population which makes up the lion’s share of daily commuters don’t really have a choice. Walking is, therefore, a part of their survival strategies in an inhospitable city. And, there is the tyranny of spitting. How can we walk on footpaths while we have to survey so intensely the ground to avoid stepping on spit and sometime urine as well. Somebody needs to do an anthropological study on why urban people in Bangladesh spit on the streets and footpaths so routinely.
Our city’s over-crowded footpaths make it virtually impossible to walk without bumping into a fellow pedestrian. Footpaths, especially in Dhaka, are a nightmare and an infernal drama played by a host of stakeholders such as pedestrians, hawkers, shoppers, transit passengers, beggars, pickpockets and the police. It is indeed difficult to pass through. An extremely stressful street life - marked by an unending stream of people, un-expected closure of roads, speedy cars, menacing buses and their ear-spitting honking - all these are not conducive to a pedestrian friendly environment. The lack of road safety measures deters people from walking on footpaths. Parents are more often reluctant to let their children to venture out of home.
The observations are quite obvious as we experience these phenomena everyday in this crowded city. But there are other reasons and factors that are seldom discussed when it comes to walkability. There seems to have a strong anti-walking bias among the middle class. To them, walking on the street is covertly viewed as unsophisticated. Car ownership has a premium value which reigns supreme in the society, while walking is seen as an act of impoverishment - beneath the so called middle class status. Yes, morning walkers swarm in the parks in a bid to get rid of diabetes, obesity or simply to stay fit; but the upper middle class people are generally reluctant to walk a block or go to the neighbourhood markets.
Another major obstacle to walkability, especially for women, is the male gaze. Dhaka’s street life is inhospitable to women. Plagued by a paradoxical combination of patriarchal notion of “Purdah” and gender insensitivity, the male gaze often commodifies the female pedestrians. It seems impossible for a lone woman to walk on the footpath without being stared and teased by males. Street life in Dhaka is amazingly and absolutely male-centric with a few number of women engaged in chores in the street. A walkable city must include both men and women. How to make the streets women friendly seems to require long-term policies aimed at behavioural transformation.
The absence of a vision based on footpath as a part of relief and enjoyment diminishes the appeal of walkability. Walkable places don’t rely on footpath alone. Walking becomes an attractive urban experience when footpaths offer views of monument, historic buildings, engaging shops, lush green vegetation, water-bodies and populous public places. Take a case of Rome, the capital of Italy and the pivot of the once mighty Roman Empire. Rome is a pedestrian’s paradise because one can walk from monument to monument, walkable itineraries facilitated by well-coordinated mass transit. Not only does Rome offer a clean and charming walking experience, it appears to have transformed the pedestrian into an urban historian because around the next corner one is likely to find a Roman temple or a Renaissance palazzo or a historic piazza. It is not surprising that in the late afternoon, if properly maintained, the most popular footpath in Dhaka - Manik Mia Avenue - could offer a majestic view of the Parliament building, starkly demonstrating the hallmark of world famous architect, Louis Kahn.What can we do to make Dhaka and other cities of Bangladesh walkable? We must get out of the myth that walkability is all about spacious and hassle free footpaths. Walkability is more about footpaths. As much as it is about safe, comfortable, charming, pedestrian friendly sidewalk, walkability is also about rich cultural attitudes toward the environment, urban life, class structure, gender and social identity. To make a city walkable we urgently need the combined efforts of the traffic engineer, the architect-planner, the mayor, the policy maker and last but not least of the law-abiding city dwellers. A city enriched with walkable footpaths can definitely transform the lifestyle of its inhabitants. To make it happen or towards this end, we right now need to begin with a national footpath policy and a social movement as well to foster walkability as the right choice.
The writer is a retired Deputy General Manager, BSCIC. He can be reached at: [email protected]