Can you have a pleasant pedestrian experience in any of our cities? Ganesh Ramachandran finds out
In January 2012, my wife and I landed in Bengaluru from Boston with six overstuffed suitcases and one disoriented toddler. In the next two weeks we would sign a lease, rent furniture, set up phone and Internet connections, and scout for day-care centres. For the first time in our joint adult lives, we had to establish a household in India.
I design urban places for a living, but I regressed in my choice of residential location. Because we wanted to stay within walking distance from our cousin’s place, we transplanted ourselves from a diverse 100-year-old neighbourhood in Boston to a homogenous, gated enclave in suburban Bangalore. Most of the domestic workers there remember growing their own food in the area less than ten years ago. We began our six-month residence in a house twice the size of our modest Boston flat.
For the next three weeks, our carport stood empty as we pondered the necessity of acquiring a car. Meanwhile, I had the task of dropping off our daughter at her day-care. Every morning, as we left the privileged gates of our enclave, we experienced firsthand what it means to be a lowly pedestrian in a city overrun with cars and trucks.
We were a strange sight to behold. A father with his daughter strapped to his back, walking along the non-existent sidewalks of Sarjapur Road at rush hour. Past the fortified campus of Wipro, past the teeming bus stops, past the unprotected 40’ deep hole for the next residential highrise, past the dusty piles of cement and sand dumped on the roadside, past the Internet cafes, roadside tea stalls, choking buses, veering motorbikes and air-conditioned cars moving at barely 20km/hr.
As I ferried my daughter from one privileged compound to another, a distance less than a kilometre became a dangerous obstacle course for our asthmatic toddler. Three weeks later, this would become a memory, as I too would become a car owner, ferrying her now in our not-so-stylish Maruti Alto, and listening to Radio One, windows rolled up.
Fast-forward six months. It’s late summer and we’re back in Boston, where I continue my drop-off duty. We don’t live in a fancy neighbourhood by any measure. As I turn the corner from our quiet, residential lane to busy Hyde Park Avenue, we pass the Forest Hills Metro Station, a run-down barbershop, a check-cashing outfit, and a half-empty coffee shop. We cross the street and make our way along the Southwest corridor park — a generous tree-lined strip that runs along the metro line.
In the 1960s, this corridor was to become a freeway, and hundreds of homes in marginalised minority neighbourhoods were razed to make space for development and the greater public good.
But, in response to huge public outcry, the state scrapped the plans and invested instead in a public transit and greenway project.
Thanks to the efforts of Boston’s citizens, 50 years later I am able to walk my daughter to school past community gardens and sparrows and squirrels scurrying across the rolling greens maintained by tax-payer dollars. Twenty years from now, should my daughter decide to live in an Indian city, what are the odds that she will even have space to walk, let alone have a safe and pleasant pedestrian experience on a busy Indian street? The only people who can answer this are urban India’s present citizens.
Ganesh Ramachandran is a Senior Urban Designer at Goody Clancy Associates, Boston