Friday, September 18, 2009

Car-less in Mumbai, London and New Jersey

autoexhaust pedestrian

Hi – To all my readers who have been following my blog(I presume – they have been ;-) ) I have a bit of news.

I had an accident on Wednesday. No one was injured – my son was with me and I was unnerved that’s all. Or that’s what I thought! Anyways what has a car accident to do with a green lifestyle?

No - I am not car-less trying to reduce my carbon footprint. I am car-less because the left blinker is not working you see. The whole thing will take about a week to fix. Till that time – I am car-less. 

Well, given a chance I would like to live car-less. Two legs, bike or a scooty(fuel efficient and/or preferably battery operated) is my kind of vehicle.

The pedestrian and the vehicle drivers are not mutually exclusive groups. Each one of us is one or the other in course of our daily lives. But it is the human tendency to assume a sense of power depending upon the vehicle we are driving. Hence in the human mind – owning a car is empowering, physically as it allows us to travel further and socially as it tells the society about our buying power.

I came to Bombay from Nagpur(I biked and rode a two wheeler in Nagpur). The first thing I felt in the first couple of days is the amount of walking I was doing in Mumbai. I have lived in Mumbai for several years without a car. I lived in IIT Powai campus which is pretty and very much walkable (i.e if you are not bothered by stray dogs and the late night visitors – panthers) and I would venture out at the most to the shops just outside the campus. Most of my shopping needs were met within a radius of 5 km of my place of residence. Mumbai offers the carless many means of travelling – mostly the city offers the option of bus, train and three wheeler autos and taxis. Not all modes are the best of the world – but they work, they handle endless crowd and somehow the chaotic system manages to take people effectively from point A to point B. Not the best of roads or footpaths to walk on though..but people walk anyways. Many times hordes of pedestrians cross the roads together and bring the road traffic to a halt. What hits me is the absence of safe pedestrian crossing. Pedestrians in Mumbai also do one more thing – they take the path of least resistance. For example hordes of people just get down from a train and cross the tracks together. Often you may find a big opening in a wall between the tracks and the road on the other side – you see path of least resistance. In India the term pedestrian often is synonymous to the common man or the poorer people. As smaller cars are becoming more accessible more and more Indians are moving on and acquiring that ultimate dream of owning a car. Urban planners need to cater to the needs of the pedestrian in the developing countries. Often this segment is neglected as we move on trying to emulate the west – more highways and freeways..enough to deter anyone even daring to cross them – example the western and eastern expressways. In India pedestrians often cross wherever they feel like…not where they are supposed to. On a busy road one many times can see a person whizzing past. That’s how one has to cross a road in India – superfast. Why – one may ask? think and let me know. And the pedestrian mind you can be inconsiderate too – whizzing past at the cost of the bewildered car driver! One thing though..without a car one does not feel helpless in Mumbai.

Many places in India you will see pedestrians walking on the road and not on the footpaths even where they exist. What is so disheartening to see is that – municipalities  spend time and money building footpaths..but height of the raised footpath – is almost a foot high. The design of the footpath has no allowance for people walking with prams or the like. Enough to deter old people or people with leg problems off the footpath. Often, open drains on footpaths and vendors or squatters hogging space deter people off the footpath.

After Mumbai, walking in London felt wonderful. Lived in London for 4 years. Not once did I feel the need to buy or own a car. For me, if I were to compare Mumbai and London – London to me is a walking heaven. One can walk really here. For the first time in my life I saw these quaint little buttons on poles near crossings. These are the pedestrian cross buttons. When I went back to visit India I told people about such buttons. One person said to me, “You mean the traffic actually stops because one person wanted to cross the road?”. “Yes it does”, I replied. London also has a very effective bus, train and tube service which makes walkability practically a cakewalk. I walked to my hearts content. I did not visit a gym during the course of 4 years of my stay there. Many European cities I have noted have infrastructure which support walkability.

The US is completely different story. For the first time in my life I felt utterly helpless, hopeless and useless. Initially I didn't have a license nor a car. When my son fell sick I put him in a pram and walked him to the doctor’s office. The footpath suddenly vanished and I was contemplating how to cross the big road. You wouldn’t want to know the frustration I felt that day. Everything here is driven by the auto industry and insurance. Living without a car can be pretty tough, especially here, where public transportation is frequently lacking and where questionable urban planning has caused the average person to live far away from workplaces, schools, and markets.

That said, it's certainly possible, as long as you're willing to change your lifestyle. Many townships(Woodbridge for instance) have identified that the issues surrounding air pollution, green house gas emissions and walkablity, sustainability are all interlinked. A lot of thought need to be put into making neighborhoods sustainable.

Improving walkability could translate into :

1. Thriving local economy – walkers tend to stop more at local stores

2. Reducing carbon dioxide emission(33% of all US CO2 emissions come from cars)

3. Reducing air pollution (common criteria air pollutants from cars are PM, NOx, CO)

4. Healthier population – walking each day for 30 minutes..everyone knows it is good for you.

5. Curb unnecessary expenditure (in other words help lead a more austere lifestyle) since without the car, one would not visit far flung shops or malls!

Here are a few links :

Calculate your carbon emissions due to your car – at

Read about : The global walkability index :TALK THE WALK AND WALK THE TALK



  1. We all know these facts as we have been throught it from time to time traveling different countries and observations.
    But its quiet intresting to read the narration point of view which makes me reliaze once again.
    Well written on our daily passing around.

  2. Great blog, and very true. I have to add though that whenever the tube lines are down in London the city does come to a bit of a standstill, particularly for us poor souls who live outside the city centre.

  3. Voow! how thought provoking....well said Sunita...I wonder people's life is much "easier" being car-less in New York City, YET so many car ply on the streets EACH day and I am glad to be still car-less - BY CHOICE -:)

  4. Life in India is kind of living on the edge.... here living on the edge of the road and life....
    Jay walking is justified by many pedestrians.
    Well not to blame them completely, but footpaths are not realy accessible in many places. If if it a busy residential colony forget about having a footpath for you to walk. because you will find numerous hawkers and poor homeless people living by the footpath. Its a home for few and a livelihod for few. So its like a living on the edge even for the person living on the footpath who obstructs the freeway for a pedestrian.

  5. That was brilliant bolg you wrote Sunita.
    Happy writing

  6. thanks for your comments:
    Parul - I know what it is like when the tube comes to a standstill!
    Shakila - yeah NY and London have many similarities - this is one..walkability in both these cities is a big plus!
    Praveen - totally agree that living in India is like living on the edge..thanks for reading.


I would be interested to know your views on this blog.