The perils and pleasures of walking

Not since I began walking regularly, sometimes twice a day and mainly inside the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman campus, have I feared being bumped by a car or a motorbike even while crossing on marked pedestrian lanes. Unless I raise the palm of my hand to oncoming vehicles, I find that drivers will not always give way.

I have realized that perhaps because of the exponential rise in the number of vehicles on the road in recent years, the competition for limited street space has become fiercer than ever. In the process, the pedestrian right of way has been canceled.

Not only do Filipino motorists not bother to slow down at pedestrian lanes, but some also actually speed up as though to deter a pedestrian already on the zebra markers from completing the attempt. I suppose this scare tactic, the exact opposite of courteous yielding, is something that Metro Manila’s war-weary drivers have unconsciously carried over from the daily patintero they play in the city’s anarchic traffic.

There are only two intersections in the entire UP campus where traffic is regulated by signal lights. The rest of the campus is unsignaled—meaning, vehicular traffic has to be governed by mutual courtesy. Here, the unspoken rule is for motorists to drive slowly inside the campus, and to always yield to pedestrians.

School zones enjoy the privilege of safe streets almost universally. Nothing is more unforgivable than accidentally running over a young student whose mind was elsewhere. In Britain, even on busy city roads, designated pedestrian crossings are not only marked with zebra lines but are also indicated by slow flashing yellow lights at both ends of the crossing. Motorists are required by law to slow down at pedestrian crossings, and to make a full stop as soon as someone steps on the road. Vehicles can proceed only when the entire marked lane is free of pedestrians.

The same rule is also observed with utmost strictness in countries like Singapore and Japan. It is not a coincidence that the major cities in these countries are known as walking and biking cities. Here, pedestrians and bicycles have first rights to the streets.

Indeed, the closing off of entire blocks within the city center to vehicular traffic is becoming the norm in much of Europe. This is made possible by the expansion of the underground public train system, which makes commuting to and from the city on private vehicles superfluous. We are clearly very far from achieving that ideal at this point. What we are experiencing instead is the unprecedented explosion in motor vehicle ownership arising from the growing access of Filipinos to relatively cheaper cars and motorcycles through a broad range of financing schemes.

As the historical record of modern cities has shown, this is a phenomenon that is not sustainable in the long term. More people are likely to get killed or seriously injured in road collisions and other accidents because of the unceasing rise in the number of new vehicles and new drivers on the streets. Because mobility is a basic human right, the government cannot just leave it to its citizens to provide for themselves, the way it treats housing. It is the government’s function to promote, initiate, and support the development of a more efficient, affordable, and safer public transportation system that will substantially reduce, if not totally eliminate, the need to own a car or motorcycle.

Failing this, our major cities will become increasingly unlivable. Commuting by walking will become impossible. Take a look at the state of our sidewalks. Where they have not been eaten up by road widening, they have either been appropriated by vendors and parked motor vehicles or fallen into disrepair because of neglect.

Compared to the rest of the city, the tree-lined UP campus is an oasis, a paradise for walkers. It becomes even more so on Sundays when the inner campus is completely sealed off from vehicular traffic. Whole families effectively convert the Sunken Garden and the Lagoon into a mini-park for picnics, even as hundreds of joggers and brisk walkers tirelessly circle the 2.25-kilometer main campus oval from early morning till late at night. This weekend treat is probably one of the best public services ever extended by the UP to city residents who are not part of its core constituency. Apart from the Luneta Park, there’s nothing quite like it in all of Metro Manila, where gigantic shopping malls have sadly replaced open parks and gardens.

Yet even the UP campus is not entirely free from the dangers that pose real problems for walkers, notably the senior citizens among us. It’s difficult enough for the human body to balance itself on a moving narrow base of support, our two feet. Consider doing this on uneven pavement while coaxing one’s declining muscle strength and sensory perception to compensate. Twice, I narrowly avoided cutting my forehead on the sharp edge of a stop sign that I failed to see in the fading light of dusk.

That said, nothing comes close in my senior years to the simple joy of walking around this vast campus and pondering its awesome transformation since 1961, the year I arrived here as a freshman.