Raju Gola is so bored with the lockdown he sneaks out of his home every day to open his auto audio systems shop in south Delhi’s Khan Market for a few hours.
Now he has a bigger worry: “What happens when the crowds actually start coming?"
As cities limber up for business after two months of covid-induced slumber, that’s a question puzzling city managers and urban planners. Some of them are predicting permanent changes to how cities operate, look and feel. Masks and gloves are a given. But there’s lots more.
“For the last 20 years, we have been talking about compact high-rise development with associated public open spaces as the ideal. That is no longer going to work. There might be a push to de-densify," said Hitesh Vaidya, director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, an autonomous research body under the ministry of urban affairs.
Already, cities are buzzing with WhatsApp messages and emails on three key facets of urban life—public transport, restaurants and commercial zones, and social spaces.
On an average day, India’s top six metropolitan cities witness 40 million trips made on public transport systems, including trains and buses.
Each of these interactions involve a high-density of “touch points". While cities may mandate 30-50% occupancy in their buses and trains to reduce infection risks, it won’t work without improving capacity, said Shreya Gadepalli of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a non-profit. “We need to significantly enhance capacity of public transit services to even have a semblance of safe distance. All of India’s cities put together have about 35,000 public buses while Beijing has 23,000 buses."
Overcrowded buses and trains could become a thing of the past. “At least in Delhi, we have a massive ramp-up plan to put more buses on the road," said Jasmine Shah, vice-chairperson of Delhi’s Dialogue and Development Commission, a government think-tank.
“Based on internal discussions, our standard operating procedures will likely stay at least for a year," Shah added.
In cities where transport is unlikely to be immediately expanded, other mechanisms may kick in. “Staggering office timings will become a no-brainer in Mumbai. There is no other way to open up the city," said Pankaj Doshi, executive director of the Mumbai-based Urban Design Research Institute. “If it lasts for a year or more, these changes may become long-lasting."
Ultimately, covid will leave at least some permanent marks, said Naresh Narasimhan, an urban designer from Bengaluru. “Every modern city design is a result of a pandemic. In Bengaluru, the idea of the conservancy lane (which separates two rows of houses) and the grid iron layout came up because of the plague of the late-1800s."
“Cities are all on a razor’s edge, trying to decide which way we move."