Sarah Goodyear in Atlantic Cities asks today if walkability should be conceived as a right. She's talking, though, about India:
To call attention to the appalling situation faced by pedestrians in the city of Chennai, the newspaper The Hindu has launched a campaign called “Right to Walk,” which aims to "reclaim our city’s footpaths" and "goad local officials to act."
So far, dozens of readers using the Twitter hashtag #righttowalk have sent in photos and detailed accounts of sidewalks completely blocked by trash, parked cars and motorbikes, vendors, road signs, and construction.
All good. In the US, which is much more accustomed to the language of rights, the argument should be even more effective.
As for India: obviously I sympathize with the pedestrians there, having been one myself. It's typically a brutal urban environment, and arguably even worse for cyclists, who are legion.
But one fact of life about the Indian city is that it's very difficult to keep any public space empty enough to offer unimpeded transport by any mode. Just as any unfenced patch of urban land is quickly claimed as somebody's home, an empty patch of street tends to be seen as available for either transport or business purposes, and naturally evolves a locally best use that may not be transportation at all.
Even the car lanes of Indian streets can be gradually reduced, in width and number, though a purely natural and unregulated process. The process goes like this: (1) so many people walk and bike in the curb lanes that motorists start avoiding them, (2) people set up tables in the curb lanes and sell things to the people walking there, and cars begin stopping to make purchases, (3) eventually the whole lane fills up with a mix of peds and commercial activity and the occasional random patch of customer parking, even to the point that durable private structures get built in the public right-of-way. In Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, I once toured a former 4-lane street that had gradually turned into a narrow 2-lane street through this gradual process that Indian planners call "encroachment."
Key take-away: Developing-world infrastructure has to be self-enforcing of its assignment of space, and this is a tough design problem that runs contrary to the instincts of developed-world urbanists. Otherwise, the natural jostling process by which uses compete for available vacant space tends to prevail over all but the most vigorous demarcations. This is why developing-world Bus Rapid Transit, and any other single-mode transport infrastructure, must have hard physical barriers to its right-of-way in order to function at all. Otherwise, space is gradually lost to the sheer pressure from other uses.
(The problem is especially severe for transit lanes because these only function of they are literally empty most of the time, thus allowing each bus to move through rapidly. And in the Indian city, empty space looks like available space.)
The process by which available space gets used is comparable in some ways to the self-organization of public space that characterizes the famous developed-world shared spaces, but in India the process tends to be much more responsive to immediate physical and economic forces, including the urgency of commercial activity and the danger presented by the motor vehicle. Cars do retreat in the face of a sufficiently large volume of pedestrians, bicycles, and informal commerce, but the struggle along this ever-moving frontier is certainly not safe, or pleasant.
And I'm not sure how defining a "right" would change that. Perhaps it would.