Our roads are congested, our parks and open spaces are shrinking. But this should not discourage us from experiencing the joy of going for a walk

It was ironical: At a meeting I attended, government officials unveiled a plan to provide large footpaths on a road leading to Elliot's Beach — and civil society participants argued it was no longer possible to allot space for walkers on roads. Footpaths shrank road space, they reasoned, created traffic grid-locks. Those who liked to walk could drive to the beach and “take a walk there.”

Even the description of walking has changed! We don't walk to the grocery store, temple or the bank. We “go for walks”, making this a deliberate activity. If you have forgotten the “how-to” of walking you can log on to websites for video lessons. They coach you on correct posture, clothes, equipment, monitoring, time-distance analysis — as if walking is a fast-disappearing skill, not a natural, joyful act.

Calming effect

But walking is much more than mere physical exercise, writes Neelakantan (pkayen.blogspot.com/) in his blog. “It has a calming effect when I'm agitated, and when I'm calm it puts me in a contemplative mood.” He sees walking as a spiritual activity. A quick stretching of legs outdoors can serve as a refreshing tonic in the middle of a tedious work-day, he says, he feels content ambling around neighbourhood streets, in the park, by the beach, in the woods, accompanied only by his thoughts. Having a companion is certainly a bonus, but sorry, three is a crowd.

“Stepping out early in the morning started as time-pass after retirement,” said Ramachandran (76), IOFS. “It is now a journey of discovery.” He fixes landmarks for navigation and checks on shops for future use. “I buy fresh veggies and often receive friendly advice from others. Today someone suggested I ought to try organic cucumber it is never bitter. Great!” He also gets to see relatives he doesn't want to meet beyond a “How are you?” A brisk walk is bracing, said Neelakantan, and helps you shut out ambient noise and with it, negative feelings. The hundreds of walkers on the beach promenade will vouch for this, though they have to drive to get there. “At the Theosophical Society gardens you are in a divine world that shuts out traffic noise in the middle of a city of 60-lakh people,” said businessman Sethuraman (60+).

Answer to problems

Most times, a walk is an “answer” says author/editor Jennifer Barclay, who lives on the Greek island of Tilos. “If I'm feeling down, a walk usually helps. And whenever I've felt sad or lonely, I've always tried to walk it off.” Was she running away from problems? No, she says, walking is the sensible thing to do,” it generates happy hormones while distracting my mind.” Walking brings pure joy, especially when you take off on impulse and discover unexpected places, leads to uplifting experiences, she says. She and her partner have walked hundreds of miles on a national trail through changing seasons. “We challenged ourselves and were rewarded with knowledge of interesting places.” On her island, Barclay walks among wild flowers on ancient hills, listening to the sound of the sea and birds. Once she meandered down a footpath, took a turn and discovered a pretty cove. “I felt full of happiness; the day was off to a great start.”

I dream of a walkable city of the future: In it, all major (and CO2-choked) roads have been turned into public spaces. Traffic lanes have vanished, replaced by long parks. Built between these parks are bus-corridors, bicycle-lanes and smooth walking paths. There are dedicated areas for street markets/vendors who give the city its unique character. Green autorickshaws get their space too. This network of “urban trails” connects all neighbourhoods. You use foot or bike infrastructure to cover the city, though a local train network (MRTS) is available for faster travel. Walking apps help you take walking tours to all parts of the city.

The system works because we have accepted (happily) a cultural shift. Workplaces, schools, shops and hospitals are within large neighbourhoods. You bike, walk, or push a cart if you are bulk-shopping. You measure distances as “x-minutes of walk”. People drive only as a hobby, and are much healthier and happier. Rates of obesity and heart diseases have declined. And pedestrians don't trip, get mugged or die in road accidents.

The idea is: If you make it easy to walk, people will walk. Researchers at MIT have developed a scheme called AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) which mimics the speed/strength/dexterity of people in their 70s. Using it, everything from crossing signals to footpath heights can be adjusted for the elderly.

That is the point: If we can engineer cities for cars, we can re-engineer them for walking and biking.

Close your eyes. Imagine Pondy bazaar, Satyam cinema road and Khadar Nawaz Khan Road have turned vehicle-free, pedestrian-friendly. Oh yes, you will like that.

Keywords: fitnesshealthwalking