Being Pedestrian in Stockholm

Walkers and lots of walking space!
On our last night in Stockholm, the students and faculty of the Royal University of Arts, treated us to a special Swedish music and dinner at a Rowing Club. After the day long conference at the school, we were taken for an hour long boat ride, to watch the islands of Stockholm. We, about 50 of us, disembarked near the Rowing Club, a very quaint and wood log cabin, right on the water. All around us, the Stockholmers were enjoying the summer evening, some fishing, some boating. It was wonderful to see the leisure and an attractive appeal of the ‘rural’ right in the centre of Stockholm.
Walking in Twilight @ 10:30 pm
After 2-3 hours of fun and revelry, we were urged by all our Stockholm friends to take a walk along the water front, to reach our hotel. Most of them accompanied us too.

For Puneites, a ‘short’ walk would mean 15-20 minutes, right? Well, the short walk turned out to be good 40 minutes to our hotel. But I was not complaining, as the 40 minutes were very very enjoyable. I also further reaslied that the professor accompanying me had a further 30 minute walk to her home.
So as my ‘short walk’ definition extended, I started to think. And I am convinced with most of the Stockholmers telling me that “walking makes you / gives time to think”.  Why is it a better choice to walk than take a car?
I am sure I bored my companion, a lady professor of the University, with my one and only question – Why did she prefer to walk? None of her answers were good enough for me to stop my questioning. The roads were empty of traffic and there were ample parking spaces, plus I did not see huge parking fees.  So none of the ‘usual’ disincentives were present to ‘compel’ the Stockholmer against using a car. So why, I implored further, did you not use a car and prefer to walk instead?
And to my utter disbelief, the simplest explanation was that the Stockholmers were simply choosing to walk – leaving aside any economic incentives/disincentives, any larger environmental concerns, any larger motives. They were all walking because they were making it a lifestyle choice. I also gathered from most of them that the current very beautiful waterfront walkway was a huge parking lot just few years back. Because people chose to walk, the area was converted into a beautiful waterfront pedestrian promenade.
This brought me back to my questioning, unfortunately, for my friends in Stockholm. Should people change first for policies and governments to follow? Or should policies induce the change?
If I, and with me hundreds other Puneites, choose to walk, will Pune see the infrastructure  essential to walk? Or should we demand infrastructure first for all of us to walk on? There are so many people already walking on the streets in Indian cities. But I realized that these pedestrians are walking not out of choice, but out of compulsion!
Since then, I have returned to Pune and continued my questioning on people who have a choice. I asked my mother. Why doesn’t she choose to walk? She grew up walking and spent most of her life walking in Pune and yet today I see her in a car. Why? Her point was its too dangerous to walk. Point taken.
I asked my children. Would they prefer to walk to school? There is a nice internal road. Sure, my son replied, but he pointed out that the road sides were so unclean. Point taken.
I asked my colleague, would she walk to our college since she stayed close by? Yes, she should, she replied. But the afternoons are hot and there is the laptop to be carried. Plus how will she move for further meetings, if she does not have a car with her? Point taken.
And so began a sort of a quest for finding the numerous ‘excuses’ favoring the “NO WALK” argument. And while I was engrossed with these small and big excuses, I realized that Stockholm has a 6 month winter. And winter is no ordinary winter – its full of snow and below freezing temperatures. Yet Stockholmers are choosing to walk or ride a bus and choosing to give up the comfort of a heated home-heated car-heated office commute!
The change in People and Policy would have to go hand-in-hand. While some initial ‘walkers’ on the roads may induce better pedestrian infrastructure, the real change will come only when the Policy induces this change in larger numbers! And this is true for not just walking and pedestrian infrastructure, but for everything in Indian cities.
When the Indian middle class starts having (and making) a ‘choice’ towards better and improved quality of life, we should expect great strides in government and subsequent policy. Perhaps, an awakening of the People, is all that we really need. That, I feel, is a very hopeful note for Indian cities!


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