Lahore is a city housing over 10 million people, making it Pakistan’s second largest city and the capital of its largest province. It is a historic city with the reputation of being a commercial, industrial, cultural, and political powerhouse in the region. It is the city that I call home.
While the majority of the daily trips in this city are made using non-motorized means of transportation and car owning households amount to just 18.3% of the total, is the city designed to allow its citizens to walk and that too in a safe and dignified manner? If not, then why not and how can that be changed? These are the questions that need to be asked to those responsible for designing and improving our cities. The current planning practices have favoured the right of movement of vehicles over humans, reducing the inclusivity of the city.
To improve the safety of the pedestrians and providing the right of movement more equitably, the pedestrian infrastructure of the city needs attention desperately . This would benefit the overall economy, environment and health of the citizens.
The solutions required to make the city more walkable are doable, provided that the concern and the will is there on part of the citizens as well as the planners and policy makers.
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The journey towards an inclusive city needs to be taken on foot
The ability to move is a natural urge and need. Therefore it has been recognized as a right, both in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Constitution of Pakistan. The simplest and most natural way of movement is to walk, but are our cities and neighbourhoods designed to allow us to walk and that too in a safe and dignified manner? If not, then why not and how can we change that? These are the questions we must be asking ourselves and those responsible for designing and improving our cities. I will deal with these important questions by taking the city of Lahore, Pakistan a major city of the developing world as a case study. I will attempt to highlight how current planning practices have favoured the right of movement of some over others reducing the inclusivity of the city.
Lahore is a city housing over 10 million lives, making it Pakistan’s second largest city and the capital of its largest province. It is a historic city with the repute of being a commercial, industrial, cultural, and political powerhouse in the region. It is the city that I call home.
In recent years Lahore has received a Bus Rapid Transit system also known as the Lahore Metro Bus along the Ferozepur Road, which is one of its major arterial roads. It is also currently in the process of getting a light metro rail line as well, running along another one of its major arterial roads. After having received these mass transit projects worth billions of dollars and with massive public investment in its roads, the city has been touted as a model of urban transportation infrastructure and development in the rallies of political leaders with national aspirations during their re-election campaigns. It seems that in the minds of the political leadership of the city and the province, the connections between urban mobility, growth, and development are clear. Public transportation is finally receiving the attention and backing that it sorely deserved and the masses are going to be able to reap the benefits of it soon. My concern is: are the above mentioned investments going to bear full fruits and benefits for all without the attention and provisions required to make the city more walkable? Not only is the inclusivity of this development at stake, it is the success of the big ticket mass transit projects like the metro buses and trains that are tied inevitably to the level and quality of walkability the city offers.
“While walkability benefits from good transit, good transit relies absolutely on walkability." – Jeff Speck
One conspicuous feature of our residential neighbourhoods, save the elite few, and most commercial areas is an absence of sidewalks. Mostly there are no pavements to begin with. In their place one often finds either patches of dirt, a motley continuum of ramps and other protruding structures built by shops and houses or in some instances flower beds or verges, also known in this part of the world as green belts. What is missing more often than not is a public provision for the people traveling on foot to walk with relative safety and ease alongside the road. In the rare cases where there are sidewalks, these are often either poorly designed or inadequately maintained to be considered functional and sufficient. A pavement with a kerb that is a foot high from the road level and no ramps is not going to be an easy climb to make along the roadside for the elderly and the disabled. To make matters worse the existing stretches of footpaths along most roads are usually encroached upon by street vendors, abutting shops, parked vehicles or debris.
A narrow sidewalk in an upscale market area encroached by street vendors and other structures.
Debris, flowerbeds, ramps etc. abutting a street in a middle-class residential neighbourhood.
Who would prefer walking in the dirt or on dangerously overcrowded roads with intermittent and dilapidated pavements under the scorching sun? The already abysmal condition of our walking spaces is made worse by inclement weather conditions, encroachments and piles of rubbish etc. Air-conditioned cars, zipping on metaled roads with ever decreasing hurdles and absent speed limits, serve as the convenient bubbles those who can afford prefer to travel in. The sights and sounds of our cities are deemed undesirable enough to be passed through and done away with as quickly as possible. Indeed traveling through the busier parts our major cities has become an unpleasurable and an unhealthy experience and it is our own dependence on private vehicles and our behaviours on the roads that have led to this.
Another important feature that forms a crucial part of the pedestrian infrastructure is the crossing. These too are either completely missing or too infrequent to fulfil their purpose. Furthermore rarely do motorists care to slow down or not stop over the zebra crossings that already exist at traffic signals. Jaywalking is all one can do. Given such conditions, it’s easy for a pedestrian to feel like an unwanted presence on the roadside, not just from the behaviours and attitudes of the motorists but also due to the ostensible lack of concern by the city’s management.
Missing sidewalks and crossings on busy roads are not the only inadequacies of our cities when it comes to wlkability. It is the general lack of concern for facilitating pedestrian mobility in our cities that is evident in some very prominent examples of a flawed urban design. I will present a few examples here before continuing with this discussion:
The first example comes from the Central Business District (CBD) of Lahore. This is a case of ignoring safe access to public spaces and parks developed with public funds. In particular the design of the Liberty roundabout on the Main Boulevard Gulberg in Lahore. This public square has become a well-known gathering area for peaceful civil society vigils and demonstrations. The recent renovation of the roundabout, which saw the installation of benches, fountains and beautifully manicured flowerbeds, was accompanied by the conversion of the Main Boulevard Gulberg into a signal-free corridor. This has led to a situation where a beautifully built and maintained green public space lies surrounded by a major 4-lane road without any crossings, traffic signals or overhead pedestrian bridges for allowing access to the park. As a result of this, the green public space with its pristine street furniture remains largely unused, making it more of a decoration piece rather than a public place. As shown below, there is also a hospital in the vicinity with no pedestrian access from across the major thoroughfare.
Map showing the Liberty round-about with the surrounding road network.
Speaking of hospitals brings me to the second example from the same city. The Jail Road Lahore, a road that has major public edifices that include several public and private hospitals, educational institutions, a major public park and several public and private sector offices abutting it. This road forms part of the CBD of Lahore according to its Master Plan for the year 2021 and considering the concentration of institutional and commercial activity on its either sides, it should not have been converted into a high-speed signal-free corridor with scanty options for children, elderly and patients to cross it with convenience and safety.
The third example is of the Lahore Canal Heritage Park established by an act of the provincial legislature by the same name in 2013. The act clearly declares it as “a public trust”, however actual provisions to provide safe and easy access for the public to the green belts established and maintained on the banks of the canal have been largely absent. The dual carriage road that sandwiches the canal and its park is also a signal-free corridor and is one of the busiest roads of the city. Only two of the few overhead pedestrian bridges that are around two kilometers apart provide access to the banks of the canal that runs for at least 40 kilometers through the city. None of these overhead bridges exist on the northeastern section of the canal that runs through relatively lower income neighbourhoods of the city. This part of the canal turns into a free public water park of sorts in the summer season when citizens turn to the canal to seek relief from the intense summer heat.
A scene at the Lahore canal during summers, source: www.thethirdpole.net
As a result, in summers pedestrians and motorcyclists have been observed crossing the canal road at different points including at the mouths of the underpasses on foot or on their vehicles in droves and jumping the guardrail that runs along the road, to reach the banks of the canal. Sometimes parking their vehicles on the road in the fast lane adjacent to the fence as there are no parking spaces or entrance points provided along the canal on either side. This causes risks to the pedestrians and the high-speed traffic flowing on the road. How could the designers of the canal bank park overlook the issue of providing public access to it is beyond my simple understanding.
It might help making the case for improving public access to all public spaces by mentioning here that the provision and maintenance of safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces for all especially the elderly, children, and the disabled is among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by all member countries of the United Nations including Pakistan.
So, far the road itself seems to form the greatest hurdle in the path of the pedestrian. Roads are supposed to increase mobility, assist people in traveling from one place to another. But what about those who wish to cross them rather than traveling along the direction dictated by the road? Why must a person walking on foot risk their life by daring to simply cross a road? Why must people attempting to cross our roads huddle into droves and make a run for their lives?
A pedestrian gestures the traffic to slow down and allow him to cross the road at the Liberty Market, Lahore.
A pedestrian gestures the traffic to slow down and allow him to cross the road at the Liberty Market, Lahore.
Turning arterial roads into signal-free corridors clearly prioritizes speedy vehicular traffic over pedestrians and cyclists. The long U-turns on such roads sometimes a kilometer or so apart offer an unappealing detour to cyclists while the overhead pedestrian bridges, if there are any, are also at times several hundred meters apart. These walking bridges that are usually several meters high are also not a feasible alternative to ground level crossings for cyclists and those with compromised mobility. Combining these conditions with an absence of ramps on existing pavements amounts to adding hurdles in their way.
Not long ago me and my mother had a close call where a car almost ran us over, while we attempted to cross a busy road running through a famous market. Our fault was that we had failed to find a parking spot for our own car on the side of the road where our intended shopping destination was. Just to further assert our innocence in the matter, the dual carriage road had no overhead bridges or pedestrian crossings that we could have used. This is partly the reason why more than half of all the traffic accidents on our roads involve pedestrians. Navigating the streets and market places of our cities should not incur serious risks to our lives and limbs.
Wider roads, underpasses and flyovers are built to serve only the vehicle owning classes while the urban subaltern languish in the shadows. These combined with dilapidated or missing pedestrian infrastructure result in poor mobility for the lower income classes translating into limited access to basic facilities and opportunities of growth for the vast majority of the populace. Together, these are some of the physical hurdles that contribute to social, economic, and political segregation of our society. Since most daily trips in the city are made using non-motorized means of transportation and car owning households in the city amount to just 18.3%, the allocation of the majority of right of way to the vehicle owning minority reflects an imbalanced and unfair planning paradigm.
Steps towards a walkable city
There is no shortage of available space for building dedicated footpaths along most major roads in Lahore. The service roads already present along most arterial roads if converted into pavements can provide amply wide sidewalks or parking spaces for vehicles in most areas of our cities. Service roads along broad dual carriage roads don’t make much sense to me to begin with. I mean how much road area do we need for motor vehicles? Famous markets and streets may be pedestrianized by restricting vehicles altogether, similar to the Buchanan Street in Glasgow, Strøget in Copenhagen or like what is being planned for the Oxford street in London. These places have already shown how business, tourism, and the local environment benefit from such conversions.
Getting rid of service roads and encroachments would also reduce the visual cluttering of our streets. Buildings in my opinion have faces and stories of their own. Citizens can be provided with an increased sense of security with better street lighting and through architecture and bylaws that are conscious of the needs of the human scale and create a feeling of enclosure.
To improve the utility of existing mass transit systems in the city it is imperative that pedestrian infrastructure is improved as well. Vehicle owners can’t realistically be expected to travel half of the way to their daily destinations on their cars and motorbikes and then abandon their vehicles at the bus stations, with no parking provisions, to continue the rest of the way on the metro bus. It is recommended therefore that important transit points like the railway stations, bus terminals, airports etc. should be interconnected with each other and with a citywide pedestrian infrastructure network to maximize their utilization and benefits to the public.
A pleasant stroll through the streets, markets and gardens and sitting outside a café or in a public square are not some luxurious indulgences that only urbanites of the developed world are entitled to. A city is not supposed to be just a mass of buildings and traffic between one’s house and workplace. It should be a lot more than that, where each street and turn should have a character of its own, welcoming the travelers with warmth, offering them a view to behold and room to maneuver freely, leading to places that hum with life leaving a pleasant mark on the memory. Inducing people to walk and mingle across the social and economic strata can help improve community integration and harmony as well. The physical and regulatory changes required to make all of this possible will come once the mindsets are changed to accept walkable cities as an ideal of the planners and policy makers and the right of every citizen.