• Desert Bloom

Sneakers Only!

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation.” ― Gustavo Petro

I came across this quote while I was studying at architecture school, and it has really stayed with me ever since. Over the years, the idea has further expanded to include personal, non-motorised vehicles as the preferred mode of transport in the best of cities. One could even joke that cycling is the new “hobby of the rich”. A girl such as myself, who loves to walk, would notice. Walking is perhaps the most intimate way to get to know a city better. You can linger at shop fronts and smile at strangers. (It is also free to do and I love free things.) For all the time that I have spent on foot in cities like Singapore, Stockholm & Copenhagen, most of it has gone into feeling full of awe. The beautiful ease with which people on cycles, on skateboards, with strollers and, of course, on foot can move around the city… Urban design features which would sometimes by looked at as facilities for the “differently” abled, specifically those using wheelchairs, are indeed a boon for everyone. And the city of Copenhagen is an absolute embodiment of this idea. It is home to the world’s longest pedestrian street Strøget. There are many more opportunities for pedestrians and cyclists to move around freely than there are for cars, whose routes are limited and parking opportunities scarce. The Inderhavnsbroen bridge is not just a pedestrian (and cyclist) privilege, but also a fantastic urban public space to spend time at.

Over the many days that I spent in the city, I saw more modes of non-motorised transport than I could have imagined. We have the humble bicycle to begin with, which is a symbol of life in Copenhagen. In this City of Cyclists, about 50% of residents in this city use a cycle to commute to work and places of education. In addition, tourists are happy to be cycling along merrily in groups in the summer. This sometimes leads to a cycle-traffic-jam at times and the tension between cyclists and pedestrians is a bit humorous, to be honest.

This simple two-wheeled mode then takes on different avatars. The cycle taxis are the posh cousins of the rickshaw back home. I do believe that, with lower seating, this posh cousin would also be more comfortable – unlike our frail rickshaws on which you have to sit holding on for dear life. You never know when you’d slide down those oddly slanted seats or be simply thrown off because of the potholes on the roads.

The Cycle Taxis of Copenhagen

The cargo bikes are perhaps what I found most fascinating. These 2 wheelers with carts attached in the front, according to my walk guide, originated in the commune of Christiania. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I will continue with my guide Laura’s version of the story for now. Freetown Christiania is a completely car-free zone spread out over 19 acres. With the obvious need to sometimes carry a large number of things (or simply larger things), the cargo bike was born. At first it looked like a very ‘jugaad’ vehicle. But Denmark being Denmark, they eventually designed it to look very sleek and sophisticated. During my visit, I saw innumerable number of people ferrying around their too-young-to-cycle children in the cargo compartments!

Cargo bikes spotted in Christiania © Nishita Mohta
The more sleek version of the cargo-bike which is in very common use all over the streets of Copenhagen (picture clicked at the Danish Museum of Design) © Nishita Mohta

Denmark prioritises society welfare through its architecture and urban design, and this is something that I had the opportunity to learn more about at the "Made in Denmark" at the Danish Architecture Center in Copenhagen.

Good design is for everyone.

It is a human right that everyone lives well, and this belief guides the authorities in their functioning as well, ever since after the World War II. Good architecture and design has been a part of everyday life and eventually has become a part of the Danish identity. State and municipalities have set the bar high by demanding good quality design and Danish architects and engineers have delivered accordingly. This focus on a high quality of life for all citizens in general, and a special focus on good cycling and pedestrian access for all, has been institutionalised. School students learn about traffic rules, road safety and more, while cycle-superhighways are being developed and expanded to provide an even better network of facilities to the people. Cycling routes often move close to train stations, making it viable to combine cycling with public transport for longer distances. I have travelled in a train coach full of cycles with space for just the owners and a few other passengers to stand close by.

In India, cycling has seen a rise as a hobby and exercise. I even know a few people to commute to work by cycle and enjoy it thoroughly. Along with the contentment of having done so, is the annoyance at daily encounters with situations that arise because there are no cycle lanes. Unfortunately, when pedestrian pathways fall prey to skilled motorbike riders, I cannot imagine cycle-lanes being spared. Yours truly prefers to walk. Even in Indian cities, which are riddled with potholes, broken pavements and uneven curbs, walking remains my choice to cover at least a few kilometres in one go. Fully armed with an umbrella to shield me from the sun and a mask against the pollution, I continue to walk.

In Copenhagen, I was able to live up to my Steven-Wright-inspired belief that “everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time”. Now back home in Delhi, I am jumping over encroached and disconnected footpaths. Will we wait for our urban design to match up to our health and lifestyle changes, or will those aspirations have to wait till proper infrastructure is put into place? At the moment, it seems to be a chicken and egg situation in general. However, I choose the former.

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