As a child, you knew how best to use your body: to jump up to reach a box of cookies on a high shelf, to slide down a banister, to leap over a rain puddle, to contort to fit into the smallest of gaps, to run towards a moving ice-cream van, to run away from a chaser in the game of tag. You knew how much effort it would take to outrun a bully or to thrust a see-saw down when seated opposite the same bully, or, if you have grown up in the city, how long it would take to run across a street unattended through a green light before a speeding car reaches you. You knew how best to get across a crowded playground by taking shortcuts through broken walls and climbing over fences.
You never hesitated to try fitting into a tiny crevice. You did somersaults and spun around till you dropped from dizziness. You didn’t calculate the distance to the ground from atop a tree. You could beat an elevator going up the stairs to your sixth floor apartment. Your body was your vehicle; it was constantly taking you places, and it was the only vehicle you needed to master. You trusted your body blindly, and you were not afraid to push it as far as it could go.
As you grow older, you discover better vehicles outside your body: faster vehicles, more convenient ones, that do not require physical exertion to control. You ride a bicycle, glide over the street in a pair of skates. You take escalators and elevators instead of the stairs. You begin to take a rickshaw, the bus, ride in a car. You begin to rely on these modes of navigation, and you begin to think it necessary to own one, to learn to drive, to never travel on foot again. Once you have learned to drive, and have access to a car, you never look back. Any conveyance that is less convenient, slower, less comfortable, is not a valid option.
Little do you realize that, over the years, you have lost all trust in your own body. You do not test your physical strength, you don’t take risks with your body, you cannot even climb two floors or walk a kilometer without losing your breath. When you do exert yourself, every muscle in your body seems to exact revenge.
Most new metropolitan cities are not designed for the pedestrian vehicle. They are designed for automated vehicles, that are made of steel and leather, are air-conditioned and run on fuel. That is why the most important infrastructure in city planning is the roads. Roads are forever being mended and maintained, widened and connected. Larger roads and flyovers are constantly constructed and inaugurated with great pomp. No attention is given to the upkeep of existing footpaths, or to the incorporation of new ones. No streets are vehicle-free or pedestrianized, as it is difficult for people even to park in a faraway space and walk across the lot to the mall. Because everyone aspires to be the anti-pedestrian.
When you have grown up in such a city, knowing how fast to run across a street is an inherent skill. But as an adult, you are only left with the skill of manipulating through traffic. When I moved from one such city (Hyderabad) to a city that was truly pedestrian (London), I realized just how dependent we are on transport, and how dependent we can be on our bodies. Even on the main roads of London, there are very few individual cars; people prefer to walk instead. This preference for walking is because London, especially Central London, is designed around the pedestrian. There are more traffic signs for pedestrians than there are for vehicles, and all architecture, no matter how imposing, from tube stations to museums, maintains a connection to the ground. Even as the built surface of the British Library is massive, its entry is reduced to human scale, just as all the other buildings around the city. Tube stations are located at close quarters. Everything is at walking distance. This makes the city permeable and navigable by pedestrians.
Living in London, I relearned the ways of my physical vehicle. It was difficult at first to digest that my body was my only vehicle, and my feet were all I could control to regulate my speed. I began to understand how far I could travel before I could walk no more, how much load I could carry, on my back or over my shoulder. I learned to gauge whether it was worth walking a certain distance to a cafe instead of eating at the deli down the street, in terms of time and energy versus taste and price. It became easier to know the length of five minutes in terms of walking distance. I learned again how fast I must walk to reach a traffic light before it turned red, and how much faster I would need to walk on days I was late to school. Sometimes, I feel trapped. It is only my body that can carry me a certain distance, and I am limited by its ability. I cannot rest in between (whereas while driving I never needed to rest; driving itself was a relaxing act), neither can I afford to carry too much luggage. I can’t read on the way to someplace, and am resigned to bumping into people, dodging pets and shopping trolleys, stepping over cracks and around light poles.
Back in Hyderabad, I don’t underestimate my ability to walk a certain distance in the city. It maybe more difficult, as there are no footpaths or pedestrian crossings, and weaving through traffic of all sorts (cycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, carts, cars, buses) on foot is necessary. But it is doable. Where I once chose to take a U-turn and be engulfed in the traffic standstill for fifteen minutes rather than parking across the street from my favorite cafe, I now choose to park my car and walk, instead spending that fifteen minutes sipping a frappe. Walking down to the neighborhood ATM seems more rewarding than reversing my car, taking it out of the parking lot, gliding over the slope and out the gate, waiting each time an obstacle crosses my path, slowing down for others. Instead, I hop, skip, jump, jog. Sure, there is dust and pollution and smell. But there are also children hopping across the street in hoards after school, women weaving through traffic in an eternal race, old men gathering at the tea stall in the evening, music blasting from small shops, auto-rickshaws and scooters fighting for turf. When you walk, there are a million possibilities of chance encounters. There are a million different routes to take to and fro. There are a million stories to tell.
As I walk, I feel my feet plant and unplant themselves on the ground, I feel their weight and the feel of my shoes, which are worn down and rough around the edges for the first time in my life. There is so much to take in, the sounds, the smells, the sights. Walking makes me long for a certain street to be purely pedestrian, and realize the want of a footpath or an awning or a more accessible entrance to a building, and judge the comfort of a slope. Before, my only concern was parking. If anything, walking has not only made me more responsible, alert and physically fit, but also a conscientious designer.
This essay has been published on The Wire in May 2018.