The Hurdle of Culture Change in Delhi

By Amit Bhatt and Sarika Panda

Picture this: The streets of a major city in India — on any given day, clogged with traffic, clouded with smog, cacophonous with car horns — instead filled with people. In the middle of the street, they’re laughing, dancing, and watching their children play. It would be hard to believe that this is one of the traffic death capitals of the world. Except that this is Raahgiri Day, a culture-change catalyst that is rewriting India’s transportation future by helping people picture a better way.

A Day Without Cars

Raahgiri Day, which launched in the suburb of Gurgaon in 2013, and quickly spread to neighboring Delhi, the second-largest city in the world, is India’s first car-free day. The name is a combination of Raah, a path, and Giri, from GandhiGiri, a colloquial adaptation of Mahatma Gandhi’s transformative technique of non-violence, about taking charge of our own lives. The tag line of Raahgiri Day — reclaim your streets, reclaim your lives — is meant to convey that streets are not only meant for vehicles, but people, too.

Raahgiri Day is aimed at sensitizing decision-makers, elected officials, the media, and citizens to the potential of rethinking road infrastructure design. For the planners and advocates at World Resources Institute (WRI) India, in a country known for its traffic congestion, reaching that goal is uniquely challenging.

In Delhi and the surrounding Gurgaon district, a full third of the population either walks or cycles, but the area has hardly any cycle track, and 80% of the footpaths are unusable due to parked cars or poor repair. This manifests in the overuse of personal automobiles, and close to 450 people killed in the city due to traffic crashes every year. The current transport infrastructure is also one of the key reasons behind Delhi being listed as the most polluted city in the world. Raahgiri Day is a car-free day not unlike Summer Streets in New York City or Ciclovía in Bogotá, except in the Gurgaon district it is a test case in a critical moment. Alongside the notable rates of traffic fatalities and pollution, this is one of the most prosperous cities of India and is growing rapidly. However, the current focus on carbased transport does not seem to augur well for economic growth. Millions of productive work hours are wasted due to traffic congestion. Without space to walk or cycle safely, people in the lower economic strata get priced out. The public transport supply is limited and unaffordable.

Demonstrating the Goal

Under these conditions, the demonstration that Raahgiri Day provides is a far bolder stroke than a staid presentation to city officials. It’s transportation in full color, loud, and enjoyed by some 25,000 people. With this visionary living example, and the perilous state of our roads, WRI India, in partnership with the Raahgiri Foundation, is pushing for holistic and radical change to the transportation systems in Delhi and beyond.

Under these conditions, the demonstration that Raahgiri Day provides is a far bolder stroke than a staid presentation to city officials. It’s transportation in full color, loud, and enjoyed by some 25,000 people.

This objective begins, first and foremost, with roads that have safe, continuous, unobstructed, adequate footpaths, and atgrade pedestrian crossing facilities. Second, to facilitate cycling, the most environment-friendly and inclusive mode of transport, urban roads should have dedicated, segregated, and safe cycling facilities. Third, public transportation systems that carry large numbers of people over long distances need priority on the road. Major urban corridors should have dedicated right of way for high-quality, affordable modes of mass transit. Lastly, space for private motorized modes of transport should be designed with road safety in mind. Road infrastructure should not be designed to encourage speeding and unsafe driving.

Tangible Change

Raahgiri Day was a roaring success in Gurgaon. The first event saw over 10,000 people who came out of their homes to enjoy streets as a public space. By the following year, participation reached 25,000. Soon, the celebrations reached the historic Connaught Place in the heart of Delhi, where authorities had been unsuccessfully trying to pedestrianize the city center for almost two decades, with traders opposing the move fearing loss of business. Raahgiri Day allowed for a test run of the idea of giving streets to people, and it became a game changer. In January, the Urban Development Ministry announced plans to transform the center of Connaught Place into a public plaza for foot traffic only. By these stories of transformation, Raahgiri is turning into a national movement.

Since the launch of Raahgiri Day in 2013, the cities of Karnal, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar have all inaugurated their own versions. Other cities renamed the event, but keep the same car-free goal. There is Equal Streets in Mumbai, Happy Streets in Chennai and Masti Marg in Lucknow. As of today, Raahgiri Day and it sister events are held in over 40 locations in India wherein every Sunday, people turn up to reclaim their streets.

Hearts and Minds

Before the first anniversary of Gurgaon Raahgiri Day, a study by WRI India found that 80% of shop owners were opposed to the event, fearing a loss of business. After Raahgiri Day, 73% changed their minds and put their support behind car-free time and space within the city. It’s a small example of how powerful of a game changer it can be to create a participatory example of the city we wish to build.

In a WRI India report about the smaller city of Karnal, 60% of participants bought a bicycle and another 25% purchased roller skates after the event. Another 80% agreed to reduce their car use, 96% voiced their support for cycle tracks, and 99% of participants felt that Raahgiri Day was a breakthrough event to bring people together in the city. Beyond perception and public support, Raahgiri Day has paved the way for change. Gurgaon installed its first 8 kilometers of cycle track after the 2013 event. The city of Bhopal will soon launch India’s first fully automated bicycle sharing system, along with a dedicated cycle track network, two years after initiating Raahgiri Day there. Bhubaneswar is redesigning its streets for safe movement of pedestrians and cyclists. The state of Haryana, which includes the Gurgaon district, is launching a Vision Zero campaign focused on road safety of vulnerable road users like pedestrian and cyclists.

India is on the cusp of overcoming a generation of transportation policy that catered to the automobile — and left our cities polluted, congested and dangerous. Thanks to Raahgiri Day, we are helping authorities see that to make India’s cities sustainable, they need to reexamine the way roads are used. The hurdle of cultural change is stacked very high, but the demonstrative power of Raahgiri Day appears to be clearing it.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2017.]

Amit Bhatt is the Director at World Resources Institute India, based in Delhi, where he provides vision and leadership to all transport initiatives at WRI India. Amit has 15 years experience in transport planning, road safety and urban planning, and degrees in transport planning, transport economics, and management, architecture, and economics. He is visiting faculty at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. Sarika Panda is the co-founder of Raahgiri Day, a trustee at the Raahgiri Foundation and project manager at WRI India where she leads the ‘Streets for All’ campaign. Sarika has 12 years experience in urban development, transport, and environment planning, and is a trained architect and urban planner with degrees in architecture, planning, and sociology.




An international journal of traffic safety innovation and the global movement toward Vision Zero published by Transportation Alternatives.

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