Can urban India push the car free momentum?

Gurgaon marks its third Car-Free Tuesday this week, an event that many hope signals the beginnings of India’s cyclovias. Cyclovia, bike path in Spanish, is an event that originated in Bogota, Colombia in 1974. Every week a designated major thoroughfare within a municipality is closed temporarily to create an open, car-free environment.

The idea is to turn the street into a space for people to bike, skateboard, run or walk at their leisure without the interference of motorized vehicles.

Sounds like a bit of a stretch given how automobile-centric Indian cities are.

According to the Clean Air Initiaive for Asian Cities, a 2011 study our cities account for 13% of the pedestrian fatality share at the national level, with metros like New Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata reporting greater than 40%.

In Bengaluru, every two days, three pedestrians are killed on roads. Annually over 10,000 are hospitalized. The elderly and school children are most often the victims.

Conditions that are far from ideal for cyclovias.

Not so believes Sarika Panda Bhatt, co-founder of Raahgiri Day, a movement that promotes car-free and pollution-free streets.

Raahgiri Day, which is inspired by cyclovias, is helping the Gurgaon administration drive the car free initiative.

“What we are going through today was the state of affairs in many Latin American countries”, says Bhatt. “There were no cycle tracks and public transport was poor. Cyclovias helped build momentum and people began demanding that cities be oriented away from cars. So we have to focus on mobilizing people”.

Today cyclovias are popular in many countries like Australia, the US and Canada. The movement is especially strong in Latin America, where over 350 cities open up their streets every week.

There are several compelling arguments for promoting such an initiative across India. Improving pedestrian infrastructure is just one. At 5% per annum the vehicle population is growing rapidly and motor vehicles are a major source of air pollution. From cardiovascular diseases to cancer, the health impact of vehicular emissions is well documented.

In this context, the response to Gurgaon’s car-free Tuesdays is encouraging. In the second week of the initiative, six schools joined in. “Children who go to school by private cars took school buses instead which means we saw nearly 40,000 cars less on the streets”, says Bhatt.

Apart from public demand, support from city authorities and corporates played a big part in helping to drive cyclovias across Latin America where cities are home to large slum populations. L

Like in India, cities like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro were built to transport people on automobiles and bus and there was little room for pedestrians or cyclists.

The popularity of cyclovias compelled authorities to adopt innovative ideas that would enable city streets to become inclusive spaces. Different lanes for cars, buses, cyclists and walkers have been created and modes of transport modified according to the location of the street.

In Gurgaon, apart from the police and local administration, NASSCOM and infrastructure giant DLF Ltd are playing a vital role in driving the car free movement

“We want to upgrade the infrastructure to encourage cyclists and walkers”, says Rohit Shukla, Director, Estates, DLF Ltd. “So we re upgrading roads leading to the toll plaza by building cycling tracks, foot overbridges and pedestrian walkways.”

It is this change of attitude that experts are most encouraged by.

“If we had started such a movement three years ago, it would never have gotten this kind of attention”, says Prashanth Bachu, who launched Raahgiri Day in Hyderabad in January this year.

Bachu is a transport planner with EMBARQ India, an organization that collaborates with government authorities, corporates and civil society to reduce pollution, improve public health, and create safe and accessible public spaces.

“We have been observing Thursdays as car free days in the hi-tech city area,” says Bachu. At first the response was lackluster. That changed when people saw the space that opened up to cycle and walk. Gradually the local police and corporates got involved. 1444366202-2014

“The congestion was so bad that the travel speed in these areas had gone down to four kilometres per hour”, says Bachu. “We have been able to reduce fuel consumption by 18,000 litres every Thursday and there is potential to reduce it further by 70,000 litres”.

For that to happen there needs to be a larger policy level change.

“The administration has to impose certain restrictions like heavier parking fines but these have to come from those at the higher levels”, says Bachu who has raised a a vision document highlighting steps what some of these steps could be.

“Incentives like replacing car loans with bicycle loans for employees and offering them transport passes will make a big difference”, believes Madhav Pai, Director, EMBARQ India. “The harder change will be to redesign roads and beefing up public transport. The important thing is that we have started taking baby steps”.

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