“People are empowered by walking,” says Vidyadhar Date, an advocate of pedestrian rights, as he talks about why the increasing number of cars is a cause for concern.

Vidyadhar Date practises what he preaches. He loves walking and does not own a car. An ardent advocate of rights for pedestrians and public transport, Date's book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change articulates concerns close to his heart. As a journalist with The Times of India, Mumbai, he was one of the few people to focus on walking and the need for a policy favouring people and not motor vehicles. “Terence Bendixson — author of Instead of Cars and president of the Pedestrians Association of England for many years — had a long chat on the subject during his visit to Mumbai some years ago. He said the conditions of pedestrians in Mumbai were comparable to those in England in the 19th century,” writes Date in his book released recently. The motor car has killed the simple joys of life. It has made life mechanical, he says. 

Tagged to this is the question of the poor and their right to transport. “A book on transport can be dull,” says Date. But after his retirement some years ago, he concentrated on researching some interesting and unknown aspects of walking, the politics of transport and the machinations of the car lobby and his 366-page book is lively testimony to that dedication.  

Political connections

The car is not a simple tool for mobility, argues Date. There are strong political connections between governments, multinationals and transport companies, which are seldom written about. In India, from leaders like Sanjay Gandhi, the elite have been fascinated with cars, he says. On the one hand, there is the tremendous mobility enjoyed by the rich and the continuous glorification of speed; while, on the other, the poor suffer in cramped conditions of public transport, poorly laid out roads and virtually non-existent footpaths.

Date dedicates an entire chapter to cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar who, he feels, is a very bad role model. ”He promotes fast cars, he even drives one and is an example of how the elite are constantly thinking of their own mobility,” he says.  No one is grudging them the speed of their cars but the poor are left out of this discussion on mobility and, overall, you are diminishing the quality of life, he adds. It is not a question of mobility only. Near Tendulkar's house is the famous Mount Mary church, which has an annual fair.  Fairs usually involve large crowds and walking but sadly there is no footpath even here. The motorisation model does not set an obligation to provide room for pedestrians, Date points out. The authorities have an increased responsibility towards those who don't have cars and this is not being reflected in the planning.

No more a social space

Worse still, cars have in many ways ensured that the street is not a social space any more. “Traditionally the street was a place where we met people, chatted, shopped... Now we look upon common people as a nuisance. We have forgotten that the street is for people too. Somehow there is a feeling that we have to adjust to cars. Psychologically people are brainwashed into thinking that cars are the thing and there is a continuous barrage of propaganda from the motorcar lobby,” he explains.

In Mumbai now there are numerous skywalks being built, which means you are elevating the space for walking above the street. This, Date warns, will lead to more alienation as there will be no interaction any more and that social space is lost to you. There are so many facets to walking, he reminisces and everyone from Tagore to Godard has said something about walking. In fact cars led to the suburban sprawl in the U.S. and it reflects the lack of proper land use planning.  “The U.S. spent six times more money on highways than on public transportation in 1988-89 and the trend continues,” writes Date. It is not surprising that, as he says, the “U.S. consumes 43 per cent of the world's gasoline with five per cent of its population.”

Reclaim public space

Date refers to the walk to school movement in the U.K., the car free spaces, and attempts to reclaim public space all over the world. “People are empowered by walking. Even in a city like Colombo you can walk for miles without ever getting off the footpath. If a small nation like Sri Lanka can do, this why can't we?” he bemoans. In Mumbai, for instance near the City light cinema in Mahim, pedestrians and vendors coexist harmoniously. There are wide footpaths and there is still street life of the kind people knew many years ago. But that is rare.

Even the construction industry does not care to make room for pedestrians and malls are the worst culprits in hogging public space. In Europe cycling movements have gained momentum and the people and the progressive Left parties have taken up the cause of public transport. Something sorely lacking in India, he feels. 

“The philosopher Theodore Adorno says the right to walk should be treated as a basic human right,” quotes Date. This book — with its political analysis of transport, anecdotes, and the need to reclaim social space — is a pointer to just that. It is also an indictment of the short sightedness of urban planning authorities who can't see the wood for the trees.