Walking: An Equal-Opportunity Answer to Traffic Congestion, From New York to New Delhi

delhi india traffic bikes cars photo

Crossing the street in Delhi can be a tricky proposition. Photo by [Satbir] via Flickr.

With just 139 cars for every 1,000 residents -- compared to 209 in New York City, and a whopping 765 in the United States as a whole -- many parts of Istanbul are already clogged with traffic. More residents name congestion as a problem than any other concern -- although 80 percent of those without a car say they would buy one if they could. So will increasing affluence inevitably lead to worsening road conditions?Not necessarily, Janette Sadik-Khan, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, told attendees at the Urban Age conference this week in Istanbul. The event brought academics, planners, and policymakers together for the ninth time in one of the world's largest cities to try and find solutions to the problems shared by urban areas from Mumbai to Mexico City.

'Sustainable Streets' in New York
New York started its PlaNYC sustainability initiative in 2007 In an effort to "build on the natural efficiencies of cities," Sadik-Khan said. "We concluded the only way the city could continue to grow and thrive was by reducing its environmental impact."

A key part of this effort is a "Sustainable Streets" program to cut traffic fatalities in half, double bike commuting rates, and start "shifting from looking at streets as transit corridors to recognizing them as the valuable public spaces that they are," Sadik-Khan said. The popular Broadway Boulevard project, which turned a lane of traffic on the landmark street into a plaza and protected bike lane, is just the start; over the last two years, 52 acres of roadbed have been similarly transformed.

new york madison square plaza photo

A new public plaza at New York's Madison Square. Photo via New York City Department of Transportation.

"We've tapped into a hunger for public space," Sadik-Khan said. "As soon as streets are blocked off, people materialize out of nowhere [to use them]."

Walkability is Key
Sanjeev Sanyal, another Urban Age speaker, lauded the effort. "Walkability is by far the most important part of public transit in developing countries," said Sanyal, the president of the Sustainable Planet Institute in Delhi, India. "It's heartening to see that the world's most advanced city is encouraging walking."

Despite the relatively low rates of car ownership in most developing nations, cities in those countries are still being built with the automobile in mind, Sanyal said. On the bright side, however, "developing countries' urban spaces do not all yet exist," he added. "So there is the opportunity to create the types of spaces that work for walking."

Like Istanbul, Delhi is already urbanized and choked with traffic, with more than 900 new cars added to the city's roads each day. But some simple solutions are being implemented to make walking a more attractive -- and safer -- option.

Adding Pedestrian Crossings and Rest Stops in Delhi
Designated pedestrian crossings and cycling tracks are being added to some of the city's streets, Geetam Tiwari, an associate professor at the Indian Institute in Technology in New Delhi, told the Urban Age participants. Though such steps may seem obvious, they're far from common in cities like Delhi and Istanbul. The Indian metropolis is also creating resting stops for pedestrians, and designated spaces for street vendors, who not only provide needed services but by their presence, help prevent crime.

Though per-capita emissions remain low in Delhi, they will go up, said Tiwari, "especially if we rely only on technical solutions" such as building metros and light rail. And what could be simpler, and more accessible to both rich and poor -- from the Wall Street banker to the Istanbul shoe-shiner -- than helping people get around better on their own two feet?

More about walking:
8 Walking Tips
More Reasons to Walk to Work
Go Green and Fight Child Obesity with a Walking School Bus
Walk21 NYC: It's All About Walking, Baby
London Needs to Set Walking and Cycling Targets for 2012 Olympics
Green Walking Tours of London's Eco-Highlights
Ask the EcoGeek: Walking Worse than Driving? No.
Walk Score: Cool Green Google Map Mashup
Solvitur Ambulando: It is Solved by Walking

Related Content on Treehugger.com