As a child, you knew how best to use your body. You did somersaults and spun around till you dropped from dizziness. You didn’t calculate the distance to the ground from atop a tree. You could beat an elevator going up the stairs to your sixth floor apartment. Your body was your vehicle; it was constantly taking you places, and it was the only vehicle you needed to master. You trusted your body blindly, and you were not afraid to push it as far as it could go.
As you grow older, you discover better modes of transport: faster vehicles that do not require physical exertion to control. You ride a bicycle, glide over the street in your skates. You take escalators and elevators instead of the stairs. You take rickshaws, buses, cars. You start to think it is necessary to learn to drive, to never travel on foot again. Once you have access to a car, you never look back. Any conveyance that is less convenient, slower, less comfortable, is not a valid option.
Little do you realise that, over the years, you have lost all trust in your own body. You do not test your physical strength, you don’t take risks with your body, you cannot even climb two floors or walk a kilometre without losing your breath.
Most new metropolitan cities are designed less for pedestrians, and more for cars. Larger roads and flyovers are constantly constructed and inaugurated with great pomp. However, no attention is given to the upkeep of existing footpaths, or the creation of new ones. No streets are vehicle-free or pedestrianised. Everyone aspires to be the anti-pedestrian.
When you grow up in such a city, knowing how fast to run across a street is second nature to you. But as an adult, your only skill becomes navigating traffic. When I moved from one such city (Hyderabad) to a city that was truly pedestrian (London), I realised just how dependent we are on transport, and how dependent we can be on our bodies. London’s planning seems to encourage pedestrianism. The city, especially central London, is designed around the pedestrian. There are more traffic signs for pedestrians than there are for vehicles; and all architecture, no matter how imposing, from tube stations to museums, maintains a connection to the ground. Even as the British Library appears massive, its entry is reduced to human scale. Tube stations are located at close quarters. All of this makes the city permeable and navigable for those on foot.
Living in London, I relearned the ways of my physical vehicle. It was difficult at first to digest that my body was my only vehicle, and my feet were all I could control to regulate my speed. I began to understand how far I could travel before I could walk no more, how much load I could carry, on my back or over my shoulder. I learnt to gauge distances to restaurants in terms of time and energy versus taste and price – was it worth it to walk to the cafe farther away or better to eat at the deli down the street? It became easier to know the length of ‘five minutes’ in terms of walking distance.
Sometimes, I feel trapped. It is only my body that can carry me a certain distance, and I am limited by its ability. I cannot rest in between (whereas while driving I never needed to rest; driving itself was a relaxing act), neither can I afford to carry too much luggage. I can’t read on the way to someplace, and am resigned to bumping into people, dodging pets and shopping trolleys, stepping over cracks and around light poles.
Back in Hyderabad, I don’t underestimate my ability to walk a certain distance in the city. It may be more difficult, as there are no footpaths or pedestrian crossings, and weaving through traffic of all sorts (cycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, carts, cars, buses) is unavoidable. But it is doable. Where I once chose to take a U-turn and sit still in traffic for 15 minutes instead of parking across the street from my favourite cafe, I now choose to park and walk – instead spending the 15 minutes sipping a frappe.
Walking down to the neighborhood ATM seems more rewarding than reversing my car, taking it out of the parking lot, gliding over the slope and out the gate, waiting each time an obstacle crosses my path, slowing down for others. Instead, I hop, skip, jump, jog. Sure, there is dust and pollution and its smells. But there are also children hopping across the street as they leave school, women weaving through traffic in some kind of eternal race, old men gathering at the tea stall in the evening, music blasting from small shops, auto-rickshaws and scooters fighting for turf and customers. When you walk, there are a million possibilities for chance encounters. There are a million stories to tell.
As I walk, I feel my feet plant and unplant themselves on the ground, I feel their weight and the feel of my shoes, which are now worn down and rough around the edges for the first time in my life. There is so much to take in. Walking makes me long for a certain street to be purely pedestrian, and realise the want of a footpath or an awning or a more accessible entrance to a building, it makes me more aware of what’s around me. Before, my only concern was parking.
Takbir Fatima is a full-time architect, entrepreneur and educator, and a part-time traveler, thinker, tinkerer from Hyderabad. Find Fatima on Instagram @talkistania and read talkistania.wordpress.com.
Featured image credit: Diego Martinez/ Unsplash