Friday, April 28, 2017

Walkway with a view

I have a fantasy about cities of the future. I’ll be walking on air. Well, almost.

I’ll be high up, fifty feet above street level, using my own two feet, safe in a sort of cocoon. Say, a glass tube or a tunnel with skylights to let in fresh air and sun.

Perhaps there will be art on the walls, or posters. Perhaps, I’ll break into a little shuffle or tap dance if nobody’s watching. Perhaps I’ll have music plugged into my ears and will not have to worry about the frantic horns of approaching buses and cars. Who knows, maybe I will even be reading and walking simultaneously.

In this fantasy, I am free of all the things I like least about cities. Too much vehicular traffic, petrol and diesel smells, fumes, not being able to see the few tree tops that still remain, having the sky blocked out, being forced into a more sedentary lifestyle than I want, and incessant noise. All of that will probably still exist, but it will be downstairs. Cars are welcome to their jams, their air-conditioned traps, their symphony of horns. I’ll be floating above them.

To tell the truth, I wouldn’t have been dreaming of such futures if I had not already lived this dream in a tiny truncated fashion. Skywalks have showed me how pleasant a city could be if only one hovers above street level.

They got a lot of bad press when, a few years ago, Mumbai ended up with a clutch of skywalks. They were made supposedly to ease traffic around its suburban railway stations, but civic activists, journalists, urban design experts — everyone opposed them, and for very good reasons.

It is true that the skywalks made construction contractors a lot of money at taxpayer expense. It is true that they are philosophically flawed, for they are based on the assumption that pedestrians should expend greater energy climbing up a huge flight of stairs, just so cars have it easier.

It is true that our skywalks are not accessible to wheelchairs or to people who have knee problems (sooner or later, we’re all getting there). It is also true that they don’t get pedestrians very far either. At best, they help you get across a couple of crowded streets near the railway stations without a mishap. Nobody gave much thought to the potential destinations of citizens who choose to walk.

However, it is not true that skywalks aren’t used enough. One design element that works in their favour is that the skywalk is linked directly to railway overhead bridges, so commuters need not descend and then ascend an extra flight of stairs. In fact, some skywalks get so crowded during rush hours, I have to deal with over-takers and elbowers. The wear and tear — broken tiles, crumbling steps — is more proof of how frequently they’re used.

I do have two complaints about the design. First, they need ramps rather than staircases. Second, they need to be much longer, with exit ramps near markets, cinemas, public parks, hospitals, and post offices.

Still, skywalks may afford me only a five-minute walk but those five minutes are pleasant.

I can amble, or read my twitter feed, or talk on the phone without getting killed. Noise levels drop. Some skywalks even have a couple of benches, and I’ve seen elderly men reading the newspaper there, or students sitting down to chat. Some young people pause on their way to the station, their elbows resting on the railing, staring down at the street, or at the distant horizon.

Walking above street level changes your view of the city. One skywalk sits next to a madarsa and sometimes I see small boys on the upper floor, trying to learn to sit still and read.

Another skywalk runs above a parking lot that’s bursting with motorcycles. Motorcycles clearly bought for very short runs; for longer daily commutes, owners park them and take a train. Another skywalk runs down a busy market. Clothes, bags, shoes. I can’t see them clearly, and yet, when they are not at eye level, I can see these objects for what they are. I see them as glitzy, impractical, or just too uniform. They excite my curiosity but do not tempt me.

A little distance brings greater perspective. I am also able to look at people on the street below in a calmer way. Pedestrians executing a fine dance, twisting their torsos whilst in motion so as not to slam into others, drivers who take foolish U-turns and block the flow of traffic, teenage girls with babies on their hips, kids competing to sell bunches of roses that are utterly devoid of fragrance: all of them existing because of and besides each other.

First published in The Hindu 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

On public theft practised as parking

Worse, every car sitting out on the road is a thief of opportunity. There could have been a fruit cart sitting there instead and it would boost the nation’s employment. There could have been a little bit of public art sitting out there instead, which would make the city a more aesthetic experience, or a more politically conscious space. There could even be a series of roadside kiosks that could be put to multiple uses – a phone booth, rain shelter, a flower pot, tree, donation booth, pop-up night school. Why not?

In our cities, we police public space through a moral lens distorted by class. People who park their cars on public land are treated as hapless victims: After all, what else can a car owner do if he/she does not have access to a garage? Poor things, forced to park outside. Anything could happen to the car, no? The government should do something to fix this parking problem. Tsk tsk!

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