We hope a small part of Delhi will have cleaner air and quieter roads when the Capital observes its first car-free day on October 22.
The idea came from the AAP government. Delhi Police initially refused permission, asking the government to change the date because it coincided with Dussehra and Durga Puja immersions, which are a nightmare for the traffic managers. The Lt-Governor, usually at odds with the Arvind Kejriwal government, intervened in support of the initiative and asked the police to make extra arrangements. The CM has promised to ride a bicycle and ministers of transport and environment in the Narendra Modi cabinet have been invited to join in.
Restraining movement of the city’s nine million vehicles requires political courage. Though the one-off drive is meant for only a certain area of the city and will last only five hours, it is the first time a government in Delhi has talked about removing cars.
Neighbouring Gurgaon, however, is experimenting with the idea for the last three weeks. Every Tuesday, entry of cars is restricted on four of the busiest stretches from 7am to 7pm. Reports show that pollution levels declined by 12-20% during peak traffic hours in the evening, compared to the levels recorded at the same time on Monday and Wednesday each week.
To make any substantial difference to Delhi’s air quality, which on many days is the worst in the world, the car-free drive has to become a regular feature in the city calendar. One also hopes that the drive doesn’t get reduced to just another set of photo-ops as we have seen with most public campaigns in the past.
In October 2013, after declaring Wednesdays as bus days for his senior staff, the then Union petroleum minister Veerappa Moily ditched his government car for the Metro. Voluntary use of public transport once a week was part of the minister’s fuel conservation campaign. Moily’s staff responded well, but only for a few weeks. The drive turned out to be a one-off celebrity jaunt for the camera.
Conveniently, the ongoing Swachh Bharat drive, launched by Prime Minister Modi on Gandhi Jayanti last year, has remained focused in a few, relatively cleaner areas of Lutyens’ zone. If our VIPs were really keen, they could have visited some community bins where garbage rots unattended for weeks on end, or the dumpsites that are experiencing vertical landslides due to overloading.
Celebrity endorsements for public campaigns help popularise causes. But campaigns like cleaning urban spaces or using public transport to unclog the roads and reduce pollution are more than just getting a famous person picking up a broom, riding the Metro or not using a car for a day. It requires long-term commitment from politicians and citizenry alike.
For the last 15 years, Colombian capital Bogota has been holding the world’s largest car-free annual event, covering the entire city. It was institutionalised in February 2000 through a referendum with 63% citizens voting in favour of the initiative. Last year, it expanded the drive to an entire week. This year, restrictions were extended to two-wheelers as well. Additionally, each Sunday and on public holidays, 120-kms of Bogota is kept vehicle-free for runners, skaters, and cyclists.
With population pressure and income inequalities similar to Delhi, Bogota has promoted public transport system by imposing a high parking fee, road-space rationing, making the streets pedestrian-friendly and investing in an efficient Bus Rapid Transit that is connected through bike lanes. At least 70% BRT users cycle or walk to the station.
One can’t lure people to do something without fixing the backend. For instance, no amount of prodding by a government can get enough motorists to switch to public transport if the system is scattered in its reach, erratic in timings, and doesn’t ensure the first- and the last-mile connectivity.
To paraphrase the pitch by the World Car-Free Network for car-free days, October 22 could be a good experiment to get a feel of how Delhi would look, sound and smell without its fleet of cars. Then, the challenge would be to keep it that way all 365 days. That will certainly require more than a daylong symbolism.