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Street smart

Reclaim your streets: Mumbai  

Streets are one of the most valuable assets of our cities. In addition to serving as thoroughfares, streets are also public spaces where people meet, interact, and engage with each other. Yet, our cities are car-centric, favouring vehicles over people and communities.

Much has been said about India’s road conditions, its automobile-choked metropolises, and lack of pedestrian facilities. Imagining a day when the streets are car-free and safe spaces to walk, play, and exercise can be dismissed as wishful thinking but Open Streets is a concept that makes this dream look possible. Open Streets or Ciclovias (Spanish for ‘bicycle path’) are active street events that originated in the 1970s in Bogota, Columbia. They started as a way to close city streets to motor traffic and let people on bicycles ride safely. Every Sunday, Bogota is able to close nearly 120 km of its road network to cars from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. By creating a car-free zone, the city’s streets have succeeded in creating safe, fun, and pedestrian-friendly environments.

Open Streets have gained international prominence and the event has spread to countries across the world. Currently, North America has more than 100 documented events. The size and style of events vary from place to place, but the end goal remains the same: to temporarily close a street or a network of connected streets to automobile traffic and open them up to people for walking, bicycling, dancing, playing, and socialising. These events are free, and offer communities the opportunity to experience streets in a whole new way.

Inspired by the worldwide movement, India launched its version of Open Streets — Raahgiri Day (meaning a day for passengers) — in Gurgaon in 2013. The event was initiated by a team of NGOs like India Cycle Service, I am Gurgaon, Pedal Yatri, EMBARQ India, and Road Safety Officers. It was also supported by the citizens’ groups in Gurgaon. Since then, other Indian cities, including New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Pune, Hyderabad, Bhopal, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, and Chandigarh, have initiated similar campaigns. These events have evolved into community celebrations that include people moving in any way that is non-motorised — walking, jogging, rollerblading, skateboarding, dancing — and usually add in recreational classes, booths, food, and activities for kids and adults.

Now, Chennai can expect its own version of car-free streets. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and Chennai City Connect (CCC) have initiated a citizen-driven collaborative campaign called ‘Namma Chennai Namakke’ (Our Chennai, For Us). The ITDP is currently soliciting views from Chennai residents for a pilot test of the project. They can voice their views on the Facebook page, participate in a mini survey, and suggest locations for the pilot event.

A team of researchers, led by Dr. Aaron Hipp from the U.S., has evaluated Open Street events across several cities. The results show significant health, economic, and social benefits of car-free Sundays. By providing a safe space for exercise, these events can promote healthier living and help fight obesity, diabetes, and related chronic diseases. Local businesses have benefited from increased foot-traffic during morning hours on Sundays and other holidays, when business is otherwise slow. By opening up a network of streets between several neighbourhoods, these events allow residents to explore areas of their city they would not normally visit. By allowing people of all ages, communities, and income levels to come out of their homes to have fun, and meet their neighbours, events like these strengthen social interaction.

Streets are publicly owned assets but mainly used by cars on most days. Events like Open Streets can enable citizens to regain ownership of the streets they pay taxes to build and maintain — and transform them into fun, healthy, lively spaces for all to enjoy.

The writer  is a PhD candidate and researcher with the Prevention Research Center, Washington University in St. Louis. Her dissertation titled, "Can We Walk? Environmental Supports for Active Travel in India" explores neighbourhood design, walkability, and health outcomes in India.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 3:35:17 AM |

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