From car free Sundays to sustainable cities: Can Raahgiri catalyze long-term change?

Mukta Naik, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi, 12 April 2016

When the car-free Sunday movement started on a small stretch of a well- frequented road in Gurgaon on 17 November 2013, citizens and authorities regarded it as a fun urban experiment. Wonder turned to incredulity as Raahgiri remained popular. Crowds kept turning out, on cycles, skateboards, with running shoes on, in dance gear, to paint and sing, to meet friends and discuss politics, to enjoy the outdoors and partake of a community life they realised had been completely missing—all of them, of course, leaving their cars home.

Gurgaon was just a beginning. The car free streets movement inspired by Bogota’s ‘Ciclovia’, became larger when Raahgiri Foundation tied up with the New Delhi Municipal Corporation to replicate the effort in Connaught Place, the central business district of the world’s largest city in July 2014. From Gurgaon to Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Bhopal and Karnal, Raahgiri is a growing movement. EMBARQ India, the sustainable mobility arm of the World Resources Institute, is the driving force behind setting in motion this positive chain of events. Despite the overwhelming success of Raahgiri as an event property, one does wonder whether the movement has the potential to translate into something bigger so that our cities can aspire to become more sustainable.

Taking a step back, we find that the motivations for a car free day were born out of more than just the desire to achieve pollution-free and less car dependent cities. In founding Raahgiri, EMBARQ India was partnered by Heritage School; I am Gurgaon, an NGO that was already known for its commendable work with turning a mining site into an urban forest, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park; recreational sports league organiser Duplays, cycling enthusiasts’ group Pedal Yatri; and Haryana Police. These organisations were driven by a larger vision, one that involved healthy lifestyles, safe public spaces, an integration of nature into the city and social inclusion. Importantly, they saw the citizen as an agent of change. And so, Raahgiri was aimed at altering the discourse, from expecting the government to provide a sustainable and safe urban environment to citizens and governments co-creating that ideal city.

The tremendous turnouts at Delhi’s Raahgiri, approximately 10,000 people every Sunday, is being seen as a resounding support for non-motorised transportation and active lifestyles. Surveys conducted by EMBARQ to assess Raahgiri’s impact show 66% respondents reporting owning a bicycle after experiencing cycling on Raahgiri Day and 10% reporting a switch from using cars to cycling or walking to cover shorter distances to the nearby market or park.

Raahgiri has also begun to change opinions of shopowners and traders in the area who had been fiercely opposed to the idea of pedestrianizing the inner circle of Connaught Place for years, fearing a drop in business. Some 71 percent of the shop owners interviewed reported an increase in business on Raahgiri Day as compared to the remaining days of the week.

Largely attended by families and groups of friends or hobbyists, Raahgiri’s role in bringing diverse people together in a single urban space is unquestionable. It has also fostered a positive feeling towards the municipal government and the police, giving them a people-friendly image and gaining them trust.

Amit Bhatt of WRI believes that movements like Raahgiri create the bottom up pressure to demand long-term changes. “Raahgiri is proof of concept that streets are public spaces and if designed well they can catalyse an urban transformation. In Delhi, what used to be dead space comes alive on Sundays. It’s now time for authorities to take the next step and pedestrianize Connaught Place’s inner circle 24 X 7,” he says. Only time will tell us if initiatives like Raahgiri will translate into a larger awareness and further demand for sustainable mobility options. For now, parallel to Raahgiri, a prioritizing of increased investments in public transportation and non-motorised transportation is underway.

Photo credit: Raahgiri

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