The Dawn: May 8, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: City: road, automobile and pedestrian

Mushtaq Soofi 

City is always bigger than the sum total of its constituents. Large mass of people living in close proximity and interacting ceaselessly create conditions that make possible the realization of immense human potential that otherwise seems unrealizable.

The core component of a city is nothing other than its people. It is people perpetually on the move that make city what it is and consequently it is city, liberatingly enriching, that makes the people what they are.

Population density, high rises, administrative machinery and sprawling shopping malls are visible city features but what unmistakably sets it apart from a town or countryside is movement; movement in its multiple forms.

Managing and facilitating movement is a source of constant anxiety for those who are responsible for looking after city.

City ceases to be city the moment it ceases to move. Motionless city is akin to sardines packed in a tin. A city worth the name is a sea that offers you space to swim anywhere any time.

Mass transit systems of various kinds have been introduced in all big cities of the world with the objective of moving the bulk of people from one place to another in apparent attempts to ensure travel that is speedy, cost effective and environment friendly. This exercise has so far produced mixed results.

Speed and cost effectiveness are the things attainable with some serious effort. Being environment friendly is an almost unmanageable challenge the world over because of the mighty few who shake the earth in order to possess anything and everything of value that is over and beneath it. The problem is really nightmarish in our part of the world where ruling elite conceives nature, the primary producer of environment and ecology, as a hostile force which stands as a stumbling block in the way of hideously attractive dream called development. Hence it has to be conquered.

The conquering invariably means destruction; random and planned. The whole phenomenon of development has an inexorable class dimension. Look at Lahore, the heart of the Punjab and cultural hub of Pakistan, which is in a process of rapid transformation triggered by the lop-sided official intervention in the name of meeting expanding transport requirements.

Mass transit system, in its infancy, is in operation just on one road in the city that has population of almost twelve million. But officialdom insists to present a single rose as a garden to the people. And the gardens, for which the city has traditionally been known, have gone with the wind.

What now creates a semblance of gardens are greenbelts, which are disappearing fast due to the indecent official haste, prompted by ill-perceived urgency to give free run to the affluent motorists.

The city administration is bending over backwards to assuage the phony road rage of the powerful who abhor stoppages, and love to drive their expensive vehicles on the city roads at a speed meant for highways and motorways.

Urban space is limited. So are the choices. You can’t widen the roads and retain the greenbelts too. Widening the roads necessitates the elimination of green patches that function like lungs for the concrete jungle called city.

The roads, the city planners insist, should not only be widened but also be signal-free because time is precious. Time is in fact money especially for the money makers. So let them make money as quickly as possible. And if anything green is in the way remove it regardless of ecological cost. With the disappearance of foliage birds lose their natural habitat and ordinary people who have to walk short distances in soaring temperatures are deprived of what nature in a compensatory gesture offers, the cool shade.

Worst is the plight of pedestrians compelled to cross the roads at their own risk that usually proves to be life threatening. Signal-free roads are the stretches where even angels fear to tread.

There are no walk signs as there are no pedestrian crossings on such fast tracks. You have to walk miles and miles to find some goddamned overhead bridge to go to other side in one piece. When you find one, its height dampens the spirit of the weak and the exhausted. Imagine what it takes for an elderly person, a pregnant woman or a child taking twenty steps upward just to cross a road.

Faced with such a demanding physical act the people prefer to take the risk. Seeing a woman or a senior citizen stuck right in the middle of the road in an attempt of crossing it is a moment of excruciating terror. Lahore’s drivers are perhaps the nastiest creatures on this planet. Instead of slowing down or giving way to the pedestrians they invariably shower them with abuses. The road, they believe, belongs to the ones who own vehicles.

Anyone who dares to juxtapose the people’s actual experience against what the city planners construct and build in the shapes of monsters and deathtraps, is declared a romantic weakling, the victim of cloying sentimentality.

The development is a ruse to treat pedestrians and walkers as riff raff totally ignoring the fact that these very people are the ones who do not pollute the city and its ambiance.

Class contempt breeds their blinkered vision and with blinkered vision no one can build a city; accommodating and friendly. ‘I knew that cities were being built/ I haven’t to any/A matter of statistics, I thought, not history/what’s the point of cities, built without the people’s wisdom’ says the poet.

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