(Dr. Madhav G. Badami is a professor in the School of Urban Planning and McGill School of Environment McGill University.)
First of all, I should like to congratulate the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities on launching the Walkability website, and wish this most worthy effort all success.
Also, I thank CAI-Asia for giving me this opportunity to talk about the critical importance of pedestrian accessibility for urban livability and well-being.
As someone who worked for nearly a decade in the Indian automotive industry, I am keenly aware of the very significant benefits of motor vehicles, in terms of providing mobility to millions, to industrial development and employment, and to the economy at large.
At the same time, though, the rapid growth in motor vehicles and motor vehicle activity is causing a range of serious (and intensifying) socio-economic, environmental, health and welfare, and resource use impacts at the local, regional and global scales.
While these impacts include growing road traffic fatalities and injuries, congestion, air pollution, petroleum dependence and climate change, the most important impact, in my view, is the loss of accessibility, most particularly for pedestrians.
This is so because it not only severely affects vulnerable road users, it also contributes to and exacerbates other urban transport impacts. The more accessibility is compromised, and walking, cycling and transit are rendered unviable, the more motor vehicle use becomes inevitable, even for short distance trips, leading to a vicious circle of ever more motorization and impacts.
This happens both due to growing motor vehicle activity, as well as motor vehicle centered urban transport planning, which not only ignores, but actively discriminates against pedestrians and other non-motorized mode users. Tragically, the growing impacts affect all, including motor vehicle users.
Pedestrian accessibility is crucially important, given the characteristics and needs of the Asian urban context. Because of low average per capita incomes, and an urban form characterized by the high densities and intensive mixed use, a significant proportion of trips are conducted over short and medium distances. In India, for example, even though the trip shares of walking, cycling and public transit have declined, the majority of trips continue to be made by these modes. This is despite the natural advantages of urban form having been lost due to rapidly growing motor vehicle activity, the poor quality of the pedestrian environment, and inadequate public transit.
While walking, cycling and public transit shares are high despite adverse conditions, they would be higher if adequate infrastructure and facilities were provided for them; just as importantly, they will continue to decline, with serious implications for the already massive urban transport impacts, if these modes are not adequately catered for.
In the end, we need to recognize that urban transport is primarily about people, not motor vehicles; and therefore, we need an urban transport policy which does not privilege the minority who use motor vehicles, but rather, provides accessibility for all, particularly those who cannot afford access to motor vehicles, and other disadvantaged groups, including the aged, children, and the infirm.
Such a policy, with infrastructure and facilities for pedestrians (and cyclists) incorporated as an essential component of all urban transport projects, combined with quality public transit, pricing of motor vehicle use, and land use–transport integration, would curb the increasing use of motor vehicles, allow all modes to operate more efficiently, enhance the effectiveness of mass transit, cost-effectively mitigate the negative impacts of urban transport, promote road safety and social justice, and provide health, well-being and livability for all, including motor vehicle users.