For years together, the idea of creating pedestrian plazas in hectic and congested Mumbai was dismissed. The last time that pedestrian plazas appeared on a plan or map of the city was two decades ago when the Charles Correa committee envisaged the redevelopment of the textile mills’ land in central Mumbai with wide plazas and street cafes for pedestrians. The 1996 plan for the precinct was given a quiet burial by the powerful nexus of politicians, mill owners and real estate developers.
Since then, there has not been a plan with a pedestrian-first approach. It is assumed that Mumbai with its dense layouts and lack of space (this is an enduring myth) is ill-suited to have walkways or pedestrian-only streets. Therefore, the idea of pedestrian-only streets in select wards of the city, as envisaged in the revised draft Development Plan 2034, is an exciting one.
A news report in this paper offered details this week: The selected eight streets are in Colaba, Churchgate, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Marine Lines, Kalbadevi, Borivili, Chembur and Mulund. This is supposed to be a “conceptual proposal” and more streets may be added if the experiment is successful. As many such proposals go, this one may be junked at the altar of practicality and under pressure from the motorcar lobby. But that the idea is mooted in the DP is a move in the right direction.
Though Mumbai is a commuter city, a large majority of the commuter trips are made on foot. How many would these be? A staggering 15 million every day, according to independent studies. Of these trips, 30% are completed on foot alone and most of them are in the radius of three to five kilometres. This means 4.5 million trips rely on the walkability of the streets and pavements, and regulation of vehicular traffic to yield street and intersection space to pedestrians. The other 70% of the trips are en route to railway stations, bus stops or rickshaw and taxi stands, because no single form of public transport in Mumbai is a point-to-point service.
Given that walking in Mumbai comes close to an adventure sport on most streets at most times of the day, and is a nightmarish experience during peak traffic hours, pedestrians are at risk. Nearly six in every ten people killed in accidents are pedestrians. This single statistic suffices to underscore the extent of the risk. Mumbai managed a good-looking rank of 0.85 (the national average was 0.52) on the national walkability index six years ago, but this was largely due to a few well-planned areas with pavements such as south Mumbai, Shivaji Park, Powai and similar zones.
Walkability is not merely a function of having pavements though even this basic condition does not exist in most parts of the city. Walkability encompasses the street design, its character and economic potential, which facilitate two things: transit between points and interactions between people.
Mumbai must learn from Copenhagen which began with car-free or pedestrian-only streets nearly four decades ago initially in downtown area and later in other parts of the city. Parking lots in the pedestrian-only streets were converted into parks and street cafes. The city is building bicycle highways now. Hamburg in Germany wants to be car-free in the next 20 years with “the gruenes netz, or the green network of interconnected open areas covering 40% of the city, which will allow pedestrians to negotiate the city without cars”.
Other cities in Europe are experimenting with pedestrian-only or car-free streets, often seen by urban cultural theorists as the pedestrians’ backlash to the motorcar culture. This has spawned studies in the United States, the home of the automobile, on whether the personal car era is over.
Mumbai is miles away from such a debate given that planning and infrastructure building still centres on the car. When this planning talks about pedestrian-only streets, it is a welcome – and hopeful – break from the norm.