For some years my life has been split between New York and Rawalpindi. While living in two places can make for a rather unsettled existence, it gives me a unique opportunity to see life from different perspectives, and I always miss certain things about the home I’m away from. One of the things I miss the most about the United States when I am in Pakistan is the freedom and ease of walking. In New York, I can leave my apartment and be part of the city as soon as I step onto the pavement, drawing energy from the hustle and bustle. That feels especially liberating when I get back to the Big Apple from Pindi, where my life circulates in narrower confines of boundary walls and air-conditioned cars – cities seem designed to discourage you from walking and taking in the richness of urban life.
Some in Pakistan can afford to live in their private little oases where terracotta paths curve around assorted fruit trees for adults to walk on and manicured lawns sprawl for children to frolic and play on. In this comfortable world, at a distance of a neat white boundary wall from Pakistan, a nameless gardener keeps flower beds in pristine order, the cook rushes to the gate to fetch a food delivery, and a driver often drives to the store for grocery shopping. During my trips to Pakistan, at times, I am told that I will never have the quality of life in the U.S. that I have here. In their apathetic strides, the purveyors of this message – typically from an older generation – are of course speaking of a small percentage of Pakistanis, and of a life that is somewhat detached from the larger Pakistan.
While the denizens of this world can remain relatively aloof from the reality outside, in what is probably just a temporary and comforting illusion, most Pakistanis must get out on foot and navigate the city without the help of sidewalks and pedestrian crossings. They must trudge to the store to buy daily necessities, or to the privately run Suzukis or wagons to be transported to their destination, packed in like sardines, barely able to breathe.
For those who must walk, it is particularly treacherous to attempt crossing the road as there are hardly any crosswalks, and the traffic lights are absurdly distant for an urban landscape. You can often see pedestrians stranded in the middle of the road, trying to go across, a sea of unruly cars zipping by all around them. City planners, lawmakers and car drivers all emphasise uninterrupted flow of traffic: walkers don’t seem to be a consideration. Instead of traffic signals, you find sudden partitions in the road and dangerous U-turns just because cars would otherwise have to pause at a light; overpasses and underpasses also ensure that cars don’t have to stop. You may think drivers are too impatient, but you can hardly blame them for wanting to get off the chaotic and over-crowded roads and reach their destinations in a hurry. But smooth flow of traffic and pedestrian-friendly streets could both be achieved by using smart traffic lights.
Having widespread public transportation would also ensure steady movement of traffic by reducing the number of cars on the roads. Big cities all around the globe put special emphasis on public transportation and making cities more walkable, and thus also making them more climate-friendly places by reducing emissions and petroleum use.
Picture a pedestrian in one of the Pakistani cities, at the side of the road, looking to go across, hopelessly waiting for a break in traffic. Finally, he gives up and dejectedly drags himself up the street to the overhead pedestrian bridge. You don’t have to be tired to be intimidated by these bridges, and imagine a handicapped or elderly person trying to climb up into the sky just to get to the other side of the street. Let no one tell you that these monstrosities are a convenience for the pedestrians; their only purpose is to keep the drivers moving without having to stop for the hapless souls on foot.
If it is difficult for men to traverse the city on foot, imagine how perilous it is for women– not only do they have to deal with the poorly planned and callously indifferent cities, they are also burdened with social and cultural constraints of a patriarchal society. It is no wonder you will rarely see women in public spaces.
Political experiments and instability have kept Pakistan from developing, reducing society to a collection of tribes, each vying for its own interest, without a common feeling or purpose. Such apathy has made inequality ubiquitous– whether it be gender based, class based, ethnic or religious. The plight of pedestrians is only one way in which it manifests itself.