The lost art of walking

Last Tuesday’s nightmarish traffic in Metro Manila’s major roads forced commuters to do what many of them have forgotten: walk home. Walking to and from work has become such a rare phenomenon in the city that some residents try to recover the health benefits from this lost habit by marking time on treadmill machines inside enclosed gyms. In such surreal circumstances, walking is stripped of its practical relationship to life and becomes yet another contrived ritual of modern living.

By comparison, it is reported that 48 percent of the people commute to work in the modern city of Istanbul in Turkey. Yet, urban planners think this number is too low and must be raised by paying greater attention to the city’s pedestrian infrastructure. Many sidewalks are perceived to be narrow, or broken, and people complain that pedestrian crossings are often ignored. Even healthy people report having difficulty navigating their neighborhood streets.

Arzu Tekir, who works with a global network that promotes sustainable cities, has been waging a campaign against “car-centric” transportation cultures. “In the cities where we work and in other cities in Turkey,” she tells an interviewer from Turkish Review (July-August 2015), “the parents of middle-class families grew up without cars. The car is a social aspiration now…. People tend to drive instead of walking for 15 or 20 minutes. We work to convince cities of the benefits of reducing car usage and try to show that it can be changed by clever policies.”

I know what she means. I have lived on the University of the Philippines Diliman campus for close to 50 years, and have seen the mind-boggling transformation of its environs. Katipunan Avenue in the 1960s was a drab and sleepy strip that hardly contained any commercial activity. It was a pleasure to walk the windy tree-lined stretch from the Balara gate just behind the campus to the corner of E. Rodriguez.

I would dread walking along Katipunan these days. From the corner of CP Garcia all the way to E. Rodriguez, the southbound sidewalk abruptly disappears, taken over by the spillover business of assorted shops, and by tricycles, waiting cars and delivery vans. Small motorcycles seeking a way out of the slow-moving traffic think nothing about invading the narrow space meant for pedestrians, weaving in and out of the uneven pavement that is usually occupied by double-parked vehicles. What makes it worse is the emission from vehicles that are kept on perpetual idling by their drivers while they await their passengers. It is hellish.

It slowly dawns on you that you need a car not so much to bring you from one place to another as to shut out a world made ugly by the unthinking behavior of others. The roots of the problem and the solutions are not that hard to figure out. No one should be able to open a store or a shop without providing adequate parking for its customers. No one should be able to register any vehicle without proof of available private parking. Indeed, no one should be allowed to use sidewalks except pedestrians. These are basic principles that, I am sure, are already integrated into our building laws and city ordinances. But, without consistent enforcement, they are quickly forgotten and breaching them becomes normal.

The burden of adjusting to the accumulation of obstacles to mobility in this dynamic environment is then passed on to the individual commuter. Walking, that most natural means of human mobility, becomes the deadly chore it should not be. Often, to negotiate a distance of no more than 200 meters, people find it necessary to hop into a tricycle on the illusion that it is safer and saves time. In fact, in view of their erratic behavior on the road, tricycles slow down traffic and endanger lives. They should have no place in a major road like Katipunan, or in any highway for that matter.

But the last time a public official made an attempt to set things right, he was pilloried by those who were directly affected by his draconian measures. As chair of the Metro Manila

Development Authority, Bayani Fernando reclaimed the sidewalks by ordering establishments to tear down extensions that encroached on public space. He painted a pink line demarcating the boundaries of sidewalks and penalized owners of vehicles found ignoring the line. He banned tricycles from Katipunan and waged a relentless campaign against vendors illegally occupying sidewalks and portions of major streets like Edsa. His bold efforts to restore order in the use of the city’s public spaces were promptly denounced as antipoor, and this image hounded him when he ran for higher office.

A well-traveled man, Fernando was familiar with what made global cities functional. He tried to promote what he called “urbanidad,” insisting that the city demanded a change in the way we live. He knew that as more and more people poured into the cities, it was essential to rethink the way the city moved.

Accordingly, he thought that anything that prevented or discouraged people from walking was a problem that directly affected the city’s transport and traffic system. He was right.

The first thing that a Filipino who visits a modern city like Tokyo or Singapore, or New York or London, immediately realizes after a day or two is the amount of walking people regularly do. They stay on one side of the sidewalk and keep a brisk pace, as though always in a hurry to catch a bus or a train. Time in these places is scarce, and everything is done to optimize its use. In contrast, we waste it sitting unproductively inside vehicles that have become monuments to modern immobility.

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