This is part two of a series of three on walking and walkability in the Phoenix area. Read the first and third installments.
It isn’t just I who relishes the neighborhood stroll. Today this piece came out in the Hindustan Times, an (East) Indian newspaper, reminding me of living in Mumbai.
Here in the US, one need not worry if there are sidewalks. It’s not troublesome to cross the street (though I do adore the thought of diagonal crosswalks) here, though the protocol does depend a lot on geography. For instance, crossing the street in a university town like Oxford, OH means, to paraphrase the Ritz Carlton’s motto: the pedestrian is always right. In suburbs, jaywalking easily earns a traffic ticket. Major cities like Chicago offer traffic signals, though what’s more important is attentiveness and conviction of your own speed.
Here in the US one need not worry about falling into a vertical cavern. On a late night returning home from work along a sidestreet in my Mumbai neighborhood, Santa Cruz, my rickshaw driver swerved enough to throw me to the other side of the seat. He had barely averted danger: there, in the middle of the dimly lit lane, a construction worker had marked a deep hole in the crumbled asphalt by placing a long, thick palm frond inside it. No manhole, no orange construction cones, no signs, no striped construction horses…just a palm frond arrested the attention of the rickshaw driver enough to avoid plunging half the blimmin’ auto into the mini-canyon. In safety-obsessed America, however, that hole wouldn’t exist, and heaven forbid something like a divet in the road actually appear, it’d be surrounded by the apparati mentioned above. Traffic would be diverted to another lane, therefore slowing everyone down…yet also keeping them far out of danger’s reach. If this happens on a sidewalk, construction cones surround the blemish and pedestrians might momentarily have to trouble themselves to walk in the bike lane.
“Unlike the US, where the majority drive and the pavements reflect the special attention paid to the minority who walk, India’s cities reflect the power and influence of the minority who drive, not of the multitudes who walk,” Samar Halarnkar wrote in the Times.
Or as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his essay, “Walking Tours”, “Uneven walking is not so agreeable to the body, and it distracts and irritates the mind.”
Suffice it to say riding a bike in Mumbai wasn’t something this expatriate would attempt– walking was hazardous enough! One encounter with a rock embedded into the dirt lane or a run-in with a shard of asphalt protruding from the side street, and there you are, head over handlebars and a thud into the midst of traffic. And no, of course, one didn’t see skateboarders, rollerbladers or roller skaters on the streets of Santa Cruz or Mazagaon. Families don’t walk their children in strollers. Never once did I see wheelchairs, though innumerable handicapped people I did see…transported by their family members in makeshift, wheeled apparati.
Where did I see sidewalks aplenty in Mumbai? In the affluent neighborhoods of South Mumbai, such as Colaba, Nariman Point, and The Fort, where most of the city’s wealthy live, work, and play. It’s also where almost all the tourists stay and international business men reside. It was here the women bore fewer, less deeply carved scuffs in their pumps. It was here people could more safely walk with their heads up, as opposed to constantly watching the ground beneath for human and animal feces, for cracks and crumbles in the pavement, for palm fronds protruding from holes.
Here in the Phoenix Valley, I’ll keep going for walks. The bicyclists will outpace me. The cars will outpace them. But I can enjoy the scenery, the scents of native flora, the warmth of this desert winter. From the ocean of asphalt surrounding the XTreme Bean at Butte and Southern avenues, I’ll wait until the walk lights illuminate at the crossing signal, indicating I can then walk across demarcated lane after demarcated lane. I’ll inherently cause drivers turning into Southern to wait until I safely cross the street. I’ll walk up a slight incline used by those in wheelchairs and assisted by walking devices until I come to another ocean. These oceans are homages to the driver, yet even here we have the beauty of clean, intact sidewalks to safely navigate.
I might be the only person walking. I might be surrounded by dozens– or even hundreds– of cars. But I’ve got these two legs. I might as well use them to see my surroundings on a closer scale, especially since there are no palm-frond filled canyons to ensnare me.
Let’s close with another thought from Stevenson:
“(The walker) becomes more and more incorporated with the material landscape, and the open-air drunkenness grows upon him with great strides, until he posts along the road, and sees everything about him, as in a cheerful dream. The first is certainly brighter, but the second stage is the more peaceful… The purely animal pleasures, the sense of physical well-being, the delight of every inhalation, of every time the muscles tighten down the thigh, console him for the absence of the others, and bring him to his destination still content.”