In the early 1940s, Delhi had such a small number of cars that “we could tell who owned which just by looking at the number plate,” an octogenarian trader from Connaught Place told me in an interview for an article on New Delhi’s 100 years. That idyllic Delhi is, of course, a sepia-tinted picture on the wall now.
This New Year’s Day, it took drivers an hour to get past Connaught Place, now Delhi’s busiest retail hub. This was not a one-off traffic snarl. The national capital is in the midst of a mobility crisis. With nearly 10 million vehicles fighting for road space in Delhi, travelling time has doubled in the last six years and the traffic speed during peak hours has been cut by half.
According to a recent study, traffic in Delhi may well be crawling at 5 kmph — the average human walking speed — in the next 10 years. So, restricting movement of vehicles is not an option the administration could have procrastinated on for long. Last week, it finally decided to ban vehicles from the inner and middle circles of Connaught Place for a three-month trial.
The retailers have opposed the move fearing a fall in business. Who would walk to Connaught Place in Delhi’s long and blazing summer? Why would people not flock to malls where cars are allowed? Wouldn’t a ban on vehicles in the middle circle increase traffic in the outer circle and the adjoining arterials? Will the government ensure enough parking outside CP where people can leave their cars safely and walk to the pedestrian zone? Will there be enough park-and-ride available?
These apprehensions are not unwarranted. But as successful examples of pedestrianisation across the world have shown, there is no gain without pain, and proper planning can minimise pain.
In 2009, when the New York City administration — inspired by the redevelopment of downtown Copenhagen — decided to ban vehicles from Times Square as a pilot programme, there was widespread scepticism. Like the traders in Connaught Place unsure about footfalls during Delhi’s searing heat, the Times Square retailers worried about New York’s harsh winter when trudging through the snow becomes a challenge.
But once enforced, the Times Square mobility plan threw up encouraging results. In the first year, pedestrian injuries were down by 35%. Travel times for cars actually went down in some parts of Midtown, while remaining steady elsewhere. “Retail asking rents have tripled and new stores have moved in,” Janette Sadik-Khan, who implemented the project as the then transportation commissioner of New York City, told amNY.com.
Cut to 2016. Times Square still faced challenges, but of a different kind. Street performers were getting too aggressive in their demand for tips. Today, “activity zones” are demarcated to make costumed characters and ticket sellers stay in the 8-by-50-foot boxes while soliciting money. Passers-by are directed to walk in “pedestrian flow zones” and signs remind tourists that tips are optional. If performers break the rules, they can be issued a criminal summons or even be arrested, reported The New York Times in June last year.
Like New York City has shown, pedestrianisation needs planning. In CP’s case, it also needs proper housekeeping. The garbage-littered, pan-stained, urine stench-filled corridors of CP are one of the filthiest places to walk. The frequent digging of pavements and unchecked encroachments make it worse. Even basic pedestrian facilities are missing in many places.
For the CP plan to become successful, the authorities will have to ensure pedestrian safety with proper crossover facilities. Subways that connect the outer circle to the inner roads have to be kept well lit, secure and open even during late hours. Escalators have to be operational at all times. The underground parking spaces have to be spruced up so they don’t look like dark, dank dungeons.
Experts also worry about traffic in the outer circle getting worse. But with at least 500,000 vehicles passing through, out of which 150,000 making a stop daily, CP’s present arrangement is anyway a nightmare. Resuscitating the mess of choking roads and honking cars that Delhi’s 84-year-old business district has been reduced to will not be painless. As the sepia picture on the wall reminds us, the national capital has long run out of space, and options.