Come February and Delhi will get its first pedestrian zone at Connaught Place. As a three-month trial, Delhi’s 84-year-old central retail hub will ban vehicles to make more room for walkers in its inner and middle circles. If successful, the measure will become permanent.
For a city asphyxiating with nearly 10 million vehicles, any move to clear its blocked arteries could be a life-saver. Connaught Place, which has at least 500,000 vehicles passing through it, out of which 150,000 make a stop daily, is a good place to start. For one, it has Delhi’s biggest interchange at Rajiv Chowk where all the major Metro lines converge. The city’s busiest bus stations are also within walking distance.
Though in a huge majority, pedestrians have never been a priority as far as Delhi’s infrastructure goes. British journalist Sam Miller, who explored some of the capital’s less celebrated destinations in his book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, found it was not an easy city to walk in. A study by Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi corroborated his observation.
It found that footpaths were available in only 55%of the total road length surveyed. Only 10-15% of the total stretch had footpaths built according to the norms on height and width. None of the stretches had a continuous footpath.
While making Connaught Place car-free, the authorities should clear up the walking spaces. Local shopkeepers are worried that post-pedestrianisation, empty parking lots will be taken over by hawkers. Large tracts of public spaces in Delhi, including at Connaught Place and its arterials, are already under encroachment.
While shoring up pedestrian infrastructure will not be prohibitive, Delhi’s real challenge is to meet the demands of capital-intensive public transport. As any Delhi commuter will tell you, mobility is not the problem in the city. Accessibility is. Most people rely on private vehicles for their daily commute — for work, shopping and leisure — because public transport remains patchy and last-mile connectivity is missing.
Delhi’s collapsing bus system cannot sustain the passenger load that any restriction on private vehicles will shift to it. With just 4,121 buses, the fleet size today is at a six-year low. Auto drivers still overcharge. For any anti-car measure to succeed, the government has to fix these basics first.
Celebrating one year in office, the AAP government had, among other things, promised an “angiography of Delhi’s arteries”. If they, along with the Centre, are willing to walk the distance, the Connaught Place experiment could indeed be the first step towards unclogging Delhi.