Is Being Able to Walk Around Your City a Right?

Inside The Hindu's fight to reclaim India's sidewalks for pedestrians.

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Sarah Goodyear

The ability to walk from one place to another is one of humanity’s defining characteristics. Using our two feet to carry us about our business is one of the basic functions that our species was designed to fulfill.

And yet in many parts of the world, pedestrians have become so marginalized that exercising performing this fundamental human operation has become life-threatening.

The situation is bad enough in developed countries such as the United States, where elaborate auto infrastructure has systematically displaced and excluded pedestrians and where nearly every citizen owns a car.

But in countries of the global South, such as India, the conditions for people on foot can be even more dire. To call attention to the appalling situation faced by pedestrians in the city of Chennai, the newspaper The Hindu has launched a campaign called “Right to Walk,” which aims to "reclaim our city’s footpaths" and "goad local officials to act."

So far, dozens of readers using the Twitter hashtag #righttowalk have sent in photos and detailed accounts of sidewalks completely blocked by trash, parked cars and motorbikes, vendors, road signs, and construction.

The campaign reveals a scene in which sidewalks are illegally appropriated for commercial activity and parking, forcing those on foot into the street, which is clogged with dangerous traffic. The rights of pedestrians are completely ignored by authorities and property owners alike, a situation that many of the paper’s readers blame on governmental corruption and incompetence.

As The Hindu points out, the right to walk — to move freely through the territory of India — is guaranteed by the nation’s constitution, but the government consistently prioritizes cars in planning and enforcement.

The rate of car ownership in Chennai, population 6.5 million, has risen sharply in recent years — although, at 130 cars per 1,000 residents, it is still far short of that in New York City, which with 472 cars per 1,000 residents has the fewest vehicles per capita of any major city in the United States.

So far, The Hindu's campaign has scored at least one success. After a reader highlighted debris on a sidewalk near a clinic for the visually impaired, the pavement was cleared overnight.

Cities like Chennai are facing an important turning point: Will they continue to let citizens' right to walk erode? Or will they demand better conditions? "A lot of the space that should go to the millions on foot is taken over by an army of fast and furiously honking cars and motorcycles," writes The Hindu. "Walking as a right has to be asserted with a voice that is loud and clear."

Top image: An example of the struggles pedestrians face from Gurgaon. Image by Sarah Goodyear.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.