As India has been hotly debating the macroeconomic and defence procurement policies over the past two months, a city-level initiative has failed to ignite a wider public debate. Delhi’s lieutenant governor has given nod to a proposal that will bar motor vehicle movement in Chandni Chowk, the 1.5 km stretch from Red Fort to Fatehpuri mosque, from 9 am to 9 pm, allowing only pedestrians, cycle rickshaws and e-rickshaws. Allowing only non-motorized vehicles (NMVs) in cities and/or parts of cities is becoming an increasingly accepted policy in cities worldwide. A 1999 study by Eurobarometer suggested that more than 45% Europeans considered increasing more pedestrian areas as an important tool for solving environmental problems linked to city traffic. Not surprisingly, many cities in the West have taken the lead in injecting “traffic evaporation".

Madrid, Paris, New York and Portland are such examples. In the East, parts of Tokyo and Kyoto give one a sense of what can be achieved when we pedestrianize certain streets. Copenhagen is a shining example of such a move. It started to ban motorized vehicles in the 1960s. Now, it has over 200 miles of bike lanes and half its population bikes to work.

Similarly, São Paulo has also banned Sunday movement of motor vehicles on Paulista Avenue—a 2.8 km stretch that is considered the testimony of Brazil’s economic vibrancy and rising stature in the global economy. Every Sunday, the street brims with artists, city residents, youngsters, sportsmen, tourists, local businesses and gypsies. It is now accepted that Paulista Avenue has given a booster shot to the city’s cultural scene, while breaking barriers between people.

As Chandni Chowk gears up for such a move, it is important to outline the possible benefits of the initiative, especially as it is happening in India’s most popular neighbourhood. First, the air quality in cities has been reported to greatly improve when a significant share of their roads are closed for motor vehicles. This is largely because of action against diesel vehicles, which are primary contributors to air pollution, mostly because of emission of particulate matter (PM).

Second, such measures lead to improved quality of life. The cultural expression, free-wheeling interaction of citizens, increased physical exercise, and reduced travel times in many cases contribute to enhanced quality of life.

Third, most cities that experimented with such pedestrianization also saw higher reliance on use of bicycles. In fact, some cities witnessed emerging business models focusing on cycling. After Paris created 400 miles of bicycle lanes in 2007, it also launched a bike sharing programme, Vélib, which is considered to be the largest and most used system in the West.

Fourth, it leads to an explosive increase in cultural expression. Local dance and songs, theatre, street wall art, marathons, open-theatre, food walks, and night-life exploration are a few such activities. Bogotá closes 76 miles of streets from 7 am to 2 pm on Sundays and holidays to make way for Ciclovía, a cycling event run by the local government since 1974. It is now the world’s most successful mass recreation event.

Fifth, such cultural expression and emergence of cities’ characters lead to heightened economic activity and tourism. Chandni Chowk is an assimilation of hundreds of years of cuisine, culture, poetry, history, local arts and traditional businesses. We will be able to revive, restore and recreate the magic of Chandni Chowk with this new initiative. The economic gains also extend to lower costs associated with lower congestion, accidents and health expenditures. Sixth, open and shared streets lead to lower road accidents and deaths.

Seventh, this measure also leads to improved aesthetics of the cities—the deterioration of urban landscape bottoms-out, noise and air pollution declines and city infrastructure opens up to new possibilities.

Last, and perhaps the most significant ramification of such open streets, is the increase in equity in cities. A considerable share of the city’s population does not own a car. Thus, they involuntarily share the transaction costs of congested city streets without experiencing the benefits of car ownership.

The most significant ramification of such open streets is increase in equity in cities

This roll-call on benefits of restricting motorized vehicles does not imply a blanket and knee-jerk universal prohibition across cities. On the contrary, this is a measure that needs to be carefully assessed and judiciously implemented. Indian cities cannot overlook established benefits of motorization, industrialization, globalization and ease of doing business.

Singapore shows the way in this regard. The city-state has shown remarkable ability to progress with changing times, keeping pace with global trade and mobility, while safeguarding the ethos of Singapore life. The popular streets in Singapore, Club Street, Haji Lane, Bali Lane, Dunlop Street, and Chander Road, among others, are closed to cars at different times of the week.

In conclusion, it can be said that the experiment of closing streets for motor vehicles partially has yielded strong results in the West and even in the East. India is growing and, with this, the aspirations of its citizens are also increasing. They now demand and deserve quality life. Pedestrianization of cities is a nuanced, low-cost initiative that has helped cities acquire multiple benefits of sustainable environment, good health, conviviality, creation of safe and inclusive cities, road safety and cultural revival.

Devashish Dhar is public policy specialist, NITI Aayog. Views are personal.

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