Of Highways and Footpaths

Hi Pam,

I am not sure whether what I am putting up now will be of interest to all. But those who live in big cites and towns, and are used to crowded, high traffic zones in urban environments, will probably like and agree with this contrarian view on urbanisation.

In a recent interview to an Indian newspaper, Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, said that the quality of footpaths (and not highways) determine the quality of life in a city. "The single biggest difference between the infrastructure of an advanced nation and a backward nation is its footpaths, not its highways," he said, comparing countries in Asia and Africa with those of Europe. As a big advocate of walkways, cycle paths and street life, Penelosa points out that for reasons of equity as well as practical efficiency, pedestrians and public transport must be given priority over private car owners. "Bigger roads and flyovers will never solve the problem of traffic. It has never solved the problem in any city in the world," he says. “If there is more space, there will be more cars to clog the space."

As a resident of a capital city in a developing nation, I couldn't agree with Penelosa more. At more than 4 million vehicles, Delhi has the highest vehicular traffic in the country. Each day some 600 vehicles get added to the roads. In spite of all the measures taken by the government to ease the flow of traffic (flyovers and underspasses) and control emissions (the public transport runs on CNG), Delhi continues to be one of the most polluted cities in the world. As a kid, I had the privilege of cycling to the farthest corners of the city with not a care about anything. I can't see my son doing the same, given the number of accidents on the road that I read about every day in the newspapers. Every road in the city is teeming with vehicles (thanks to easy loans made available by automobile companies). I don't know if I will ever see the day when this city will clear up spaces to create broad walkways for the citizens along busy roads and highways.

My only hope is that as more people take to using Delhi's efficient Metro rail system (and use less of their private vehicles), they will relieve the vehicular pressure off the roads and help themselves to cleaner air. But in the long term, urban planners in the developing world will have to draw fresh plans to refashion and recreate their cities to provide not only the basic amenities to its people but also the much-need quality of life.


Open Letters: 


Thank you for sharing this.

I agree with Enrique Penalosa - and you. We want more community transport systems and fewer individual ones. Cars clog the place up and are environmentally unfriendly.

In London we have a congestion charge - a kind of daily tax that people have to pay if they want to drive a vehicle into the centre of the city. It is suppoed to reduce the amount of traffic.  Of course it hits the poorest people the worst making some journeys too expensive to do, while for people with plenty of money it is just a minor inconvenience. I think in theory the money raised is supposed to be used to improve public transport (which would be a good thing and would benefit the people who couldn't afford the congestion charge) - but I can't think of any public transport improvement I know about that is credited to the congestion charge.

I guess it is easy for me to speak against personal transport as it is years since I owned a car or even a motor scooter. I know it is more difficult for families with young children, but that is partly because of the expectation npw that families will have cars and will use them for virtually everything.

When I was a small child very few families had cars, and yet the shopping still got done, and we still got to school and back, and went to after-school activities and round to play with friends. I guess there were more home-deliveries then. We used bikes more too - but that was easier and safer because the roads weren't so busy.

There was an interesting online discussion recently about the benefits of being able to walk to things in your locality. (I think it was on the Peer to Peer network - do you know it?)

One of the reasons i like where I live is because I am in easy walking distance of trains, trams, buses, shops, parks, cinema, and other facilities.

Because of the credit crunch our government  (like the German government) made public money available to subsidise the cost of new cars in order to support our ailing car industry.  I don't want to keep seeing more new cars - I want to see more imaginative approaches and more public transport.

I think a consideration of Highways and Footpaths is an important element of urban planning and  sustainable development (and better commnity lifestyles too). Thank you for raising the issue, and for sharing interesting details of how it relates to your personal experiences