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How a Small Experiment in Delhi’s Suburbs Sparked a National Car-Free Movement

Raahgiri Day demonstrates the power that can be derived from people-oriented streets and cities. This event, which started as a small idea, has transformed cities across India. Gurugram, India, March 2014. Photo by Raahgiri Team Gurugram

Imagine a city where roads that are normally clogged with traffic and clouded with smog are instead filled with people – rich and poor, young and old, men and women, all laughing, dancing, watching their children play, cycling Raahgand skating without fear of being run over. Yes, that’s what happened on November 17, 2013, when four and half kilometers of roads around the Galleria Market in Gurugram, India, were closed to traffic and opened to people for the launch of the inaugural Raahgiri Day.

According to the 2011 Census, 23 percent of people walk to work, 13 percent cycle to work and only 2.7 percent of people drive to work in India. Yet, planners continue to design cities for motor vehicles. The result: more than 50 percent of those who are killed in road accidents in Indian cites are pedestrians and cyclists.

The Raahgiri Day initiative was inspired by Bogotá’s famous Ciclovía, where every Sunday and holiday about 120 kilometers of roads are closed to motorized traffic. During Ciclovía, around 1.5 million people turn up to walk, cycle and enjoy the roads as public spaces. Inspired by the Bogotá example, some young, local residents started it in Gurugram.

In addition to opening city streets to walking and cycling, Raahgiri Day hosts a variety of community exercise and dance classes, as well as different sporting activities. Photo by Raahgiri Team Gurugram

More than 10,000 people turned up for the launch of Raahgiri Day in Gurugram, and everyone, including myself, was pleasantly surprised. After the first couple of months, Raahgiri was fully established. By February 2014, attendance reached over 25,000 people. In May, it was reported as a Top 14 Experience in Gurugram by the travel website, Lonely Planet. The next big moment for the campaign came in July 2014, when it came to Connaught Place in Delhi. The Delhi example reinstated the belief that if streets are made for all, they will be used by all.

Today, this concept has been adopted by more than 50 cities. Bhopal, Chandigarh and Jamshedpur call it Raahgiri, while cities such as Mumbai, Chennai and Lucknow have come up with their own names. Cities like Bhubaneswar, Pune and Ahmedabad started with Raahgiri but later changed to a local name. The campaign has also been adopted by smaller cities such as Angul in Odisha, Bhagalpur in Bihar, and Fatehabad and Jhajjar in Haryana.

Apart from the fun and frolic, Raahgiri has also produced some tangible changes on ground. Research by WRI India suggests that in Gurugram and Mumbai around 30 percent of people who participated went and actually bought bicycles.

In addition to this, cities such as Bhopal have gone beyond the event and created dedicated cycling infrastructure and a bicycle sharing program. The Raahgiri platform has also been used to amplify schemes like Beti Bacho, Beti Padaho; Accessible India; and Swachh Bharat.

Over 25,000 pedestrians and bikers took to the streets of Gurugram, India during Raahgiri day in 2014. Photo by Raahgiri Team Gurugram

Raahgiri has also inspired campaigns such as car free days, pedal to work challenges, neighborhood improvements, etc. There are also numerous anecdotal examples of how peoples’ lives have changed following Raahgiri-inspired lifestyle changes.

The campaign is a great example of how public, private and community participation can bring about positive change, and how a small experiment can become a national phenomenon. It was not surprising that last month the Chief Minister of Haryana Manohar Lal asked all districts to organize a Raahgiri Day.

The true success of Raahgiri will be achieved when streets are safe for all road users, without any restriction on vehicular entry.

This will take some time, but we need to keep reminding ourselves that cities are for people, not vehicles, and there is no better way of showing it than a revolution such as Raahgiri Day.

The original version of this article was published on Hindustan Times.

Amit Bhatt is the Director of Integrated Transport at WRI India Ross Center.