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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Need pedestrian-friendly cities to fight coronavirus

Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune
When many metropolitan cities worldwide ease lockdown restrictions, some city authorities are closing their roads to vehicles, making bicycle lanes, widening pavements, and handing over parking spaces to eateries and coffee joints.
Meanwhile, neighbouring India plans to make 100 cities more pedestrian-friendly after coronavirus lockdown. The Indian government commits to making its streets and markets more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists as it emerges from one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns, a move urgently needed to curb pollution and improve liveability.
Bangladesh urban planners and city authorities should give additional effort to make cities more pedestrian-friendly once the coronavirus lockdown is relaxed.
Dhaka cannot be said to be a walkable city. Moving in the city is dangerous for pedestrians. Every day, numerous pedestrians are victims of a road mishap in crazy traffic. A pedestrian has to negotiate several hurdles as if overcoming obstacle course training for security forces.
If this is the scenario of Dhaka, imagine the walkability in the cities of Chattagram, Barishal, Khulna, Rajshahi, Mymensingh, Cumilla, or Sylhet.
As the people of the region are likely to live with the coronavirus and have to abide by health guidelines, hundreds of city dwellers have opted to ride motorbikes and bicycles to maintain social distance. 
The volume of both self-driven modes of transport has been reported to have significantly risen in the streets.
If the pedestrian-friendly city is implemented, the commuters will also incorporate more walking. For sustainable urban living, cities should also promote public transit and bicycle lanes.
If pedestrian-friendly walkways are built, the major shift in urban living will have a positive impact on traffic, dramatically improve air quality, and improve overall health and life quality.
Making safe walkways was never a priority of the city authorities. The authorities prefer roads for the plying of private vehicles, instead of rapid public transport besides the upcoming mass transit metro-rail which will commute from north and south.
When the commuters exit from the metro-rail stations, for short distances, most people will prefer to walk to their work, home, or business. 
Any urban development means construction, which unfortunately does not have transparency and accountability. A safe walkway for pedestrians was also never a high profile program, for which city planners nor the city authorities will get public applause.
The challenges remain that for the city planners and city authorities, policy planning is always anti-poor and biased towards the elite. As if the cities have been built exclusively for the elites and rich.
One visible example is enough to prove the city planners’ bias. There are several kilometres of rickshaw-free roads in the city, but there is not a kilometre where motor vehicles are restricted.
Every time there is a media outcry and street agitation of a vehicle hit and run of a student, the authorities will promptly build a speed-breaker or a foot-over-bridge. 
That’s a quick-fix solution of a problem, instead of a pedestrian-friendly walkway as a solution for road mishaps.
A smart cities program is the need of the hour. The city planners should include stakeholders from street vendors to students, from commuters to city dwellers, for measures like road closures, barricades, and repurposing of parking spaces.
Hopefully, the city planners soon will include Dhaka among the most walkable cities such as New York, Vancouver, and Sydney. 

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 22 June 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

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