Delhi's Karol Bagh: On-street democracy for cleaner air

Pedestrian only street in Karol Bagh proves why urban renewal is needed for clean air and sustainability

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Saturday 25 May 2019
Karol Bagh: On-street democracy for cleaner air
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

Enticed by the car-free iconic commercial street of Ajmal Khan Road in Karol Bagh area of West Delhi, I decided to take a walk. Armed with a portable air quality monitor in my hands I was eager to capture the full range of experience of walking on streets without cars around me. This transformation of urban space in Delhi’s core is unprecedented, impressive and prophetic.

A lot has been written about this initiative and the ‘wow’ factor of overnight transformation. But I wanted to decode my walking experience in the new ambience to understand how transformed streets unleash far-reaching changes towards sustainability; how democracy works at the grassroot for public good.

What has changed?

Lesser exposure to toxic emissions: I strategically spent some time first on Arya Samaj Road choked with heavy traffic that cuts through the pedestrian street. And then moved inside the one-kilometer-long pedestrian street of Ajmal Khan market. Immediately, the machine in my hand beeped the difference in air quality.  

The average exposure to PM2.5 on Arya Samaj Road was much higher than on the pedestrian street during late afternoon/early evening. While the average roadside PM2.5 concentration on Arya Samaj Road was 64.5 microgrammmes per cum, it was 47 microgrammes per cum on the car free stretch of Ajmal Khan – the exposure on Arya Samaj Road was 35 per cent higher than the pedestrian street, (even when the pedestrian area is surrounded by heavy traffic zones and has canyon effect through the street). The short-term spike of PM2.5 on Arya Samaj Road could hit 105 microgramme per cum – 42 per cent higher than the highest short-term spike in pedestrian area.

I was certainly breathing a lot less tailpipe toxins while shedding a few calories while walking. Quieter ambience – no traffic snarl or honking – made this experience sublime. Is this what a healthy street is all about?

More people on the street: It is stunning how people friendly street design brings life back. I tried a quick diagnostic and comparative pedestrian count on Arya Samaj Road and also on the pedestrian street.

On Arya Samaj Road with choc-a-bloc traffic and parking, about 155 people walked in both directions per 5 minutes around 5pm in the evening. But inside the pedestrian street, the number was about 375 per 5 minutes at about 4.45 pm, and about 419 per 5 minutes around 7pm. This is an amazing volume of shoppers and recreation seekers that can multiply purchase decisions to improve balance sheets.  

No cars, no parking:  Success of this initiative hinges on the removal of parking from this area and ban on entry of cars. The guess estimates are that about 300 parked cars have gone. Smoke-belching cars cannot enter this market area any more. 

To enable this change off-street parking areas have been identified in Shastri Park, Ajmal Khan, Bank Street and Dev Nagar nearby and on-street parking has been re-organsied as parallel parking.

Parking rates have been doubled in both on-street and off-street parking lots. Valet service is available to pick and drop from the market to the parking lots. The market is also working towards limited number of E-rickshaw services to connect this street. ‘In my market, without my car’, is now possible. 

Privileged pedestrian:  It is so reassuring to walk on this street feeling deeply conscious that someone somewhere is taking care of my needs as a walker. This open mall is even more attractive now with benches to rest and chat on and green plants adding to the aesthetic.  This work-in-progress promises many more changes to create attractive spaces and add basic amenities like toilettes, wi-fi connection, and CCTV cameras. A lot more is possible to make this an attractive hang-out. 

Finding space for all: One critical public observation is that more prams with babies and wheel-chairs with differently-abled people can be seen on this street now.  Early morning joggers and late-night walkers throng this street. This is a powerful evidence of urban design empowering people, bringing freedom of mobility.

More business? I hope the shops lining this walk-only street understand how this translates into more customers and business. They need to track this change to understand how the economics of this space is improving. For the shoppers, this reclamation of space from cars, that earlier blocked view of the shops, has hugely improved visibility of shops, access, and their signature billboards.

Safer: With the opaqueness of the street gone and with all hidden corners well-lit I felt so safe. With so many eyes watching, the crime rate is bound to reduce. This reminds me of the global data from pedestrian only commercial streets in Mexico City where violent crime rate had dropped by more than 90 per cent after pedestrianisation. Hope our traffic police is tracking crime data to demonstrate this change.

Strategic leveraging of public transport: This initiative has very intelligently leveraged the advantage of this location to the hilt.  This well-designed and well-managed street is strategically connected with the Metro system. Just walk in from the Karol Bagh Metro station. This is how the liveable communities are built.

The original compact urban form of Karol Bagh with high street density has favoured reorganisation of parking and traffic circulation to optimise the use of space to make stretches car free. This can be expanded to surrounding streets and integrate the local green areas and parks in the design for an attractive urban space renewal.

Democracy on road: What got this ticking? This nine-year old urban design project of United Traffic and transportation Infrastructure Planning and Engineering (UTTIPEC) that was deeply contested and delayed, finally took shape primarily due to the power of imaginative negotiations with many actors in the jigsaw of decision making. This required the grit and the support of the North Corporation, coordination with several departments and the persuasive interventions from the lead team implementing on ground. Public Works Department (PWD) has provided infrastructure and material support and Traffic Police has helped with restriction and circulation of traffic.

With the Commissioner of North Delhi Municipal Corp Varsha Joshi, spearheading the process, the project gathered momentum. The spirited urban design team including Paramita Roy, who had originally crafted this plan as part of the UTTIPEC team, guided the design process; urban designer Anuj Malhotra along with young urban designers like Akriti Kishori implemented design on ground. Consistent stakeholder discussions demystified the idea at the grass roots to break resistance. This process presents a learning curve for all. 

In this grass-root democratic platform all target groups participated and bargained to balance out interests of all claimants to urban space to enable change.  The multiple traders associations or Vyapaar Mandals have taken ownership. They now manage the parking lots; pay a fixed amount to North Delhi Municipal Corp to use the balance gains for local area improvement and some utility maintenance.

Deep conversation and negotiation with vendors led to more consensus-based and organised shifting of hawkers with assured tenure to alternative locations like Shadipur metro stations. Even the Delhi Metro Rail Corp came on board. There have been some hiccups but resolved. Some hawkers have remained inside but within the demarcated zones earmarked on ground.

Beyond street to urban renewable: This initiative has opened up huge possibilities for building liveable communities. Other such plans in the anvil in Delhi – Chandni Chowk, Kamala Nagar, Kirti Nagar, Lajpat Nagar and Connaught Place – must gather momentum to find locally-appropriate and locally-owned solutions. This goes beyond street design to include remodeling of urban spaces, infusion of life, and carving out of low-emissions zones.

All this could happen without additional big money, but with strong support from the implementing agencies, good design, participatory methods and consensus building. This microcosm dares and challenges the rest of Delhi and other cities to get a new look and feel with a human face.  

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