The move to make New Delhi’s iconic Connaught Place a pedestrian zone from February, and keep out cars and other vehicles from its middle and inner circle roads, during a three-month trial programme is an inspiring attempt to reconquer public space. Urban design in India is the preserve of State governments and local bodies, which have failed spectacularly to provide a safe, comfortable and accessible experience for walkers. The pilot project in the national capital represents a refreshing change, taking a leaf out of the book of global cities that have pedestrianised their landmarks, often in the face of conservative opposition. Prominent examples are Times Square in New York and the route along the Seine in Paris, and the curbs on cars in central avenue in Madrid. Contrary to apprehensions that restrictions affect commercial activity, the experience around the world has been quite the opposite: better walking and public transport infrastructure and availability of food plazas attract more people, improving the local economy. In America, pedestrian injuries decreased after vehicles were removed from Times Square, beginning seven years ago. Globally this has been the trend too when cities curb car use and clean up the air. Such examples should convince the Ministry of Urban Development that it is moving in the right direction, and if anything, this needs to be extended to other cities.
Keeping powered vehicles out of core areas, expanding pavements for pedestrians and facilitating the use of bicycles is today a high-priority goal for mayors and urban governments the world over. In the intermediate phase, many cities find it rewarding to levy a stiff congestion charge on personal vehicles entering designated areas. This is a mature idea and needs to be trialled in India, under its ongoing smart cities programme. It should be mandated by law that all proceeds would go towards funding walking, bicycling and emissions-free public transport infrastructure. The importance of such a levy is evident from a study by Transport for London in 2014-15, that found the British capital losing £5.5 billion a year in financial costs arising from congestion. Measures to unclog cities are often posed, wrongly, as detrimental to the economy and efficiency. While cars will continue to remain relevant for longer-distance travel, dense urban areas need relief from excessive motorisation. Union Minister for Urban Development M. Venkaiah Naidu has favoured people-centric ideas for Connaught Place, including aesthetic features such as water fountains and areas for relaxation. These are not expensive to put in, and State governments must extend the template to all cities and towns, acknowledging the wider social benefits.