Streets in India are famous for being epicenters of life and activity, and equally infamous for being traffic nightmares. Everyone with a desire to be on the streets finds a way to claim their space. Pedestrians play chicken with truck drivers, who dodge SUVs, which swerve to avoid unhurried stray cattle. Needless to say, there is an extreme lack of regulation and control, leading to countless fatalities each year. As a sign of “development,” more and more streets are being devised for higher speeds and separation of uses; a mistake that planners have made repeatedly in other places.
Because many of India’s streets are currently in this process of (re)development, they are functioning far less effectively as lifelines for the communities they serve. In response, a handful of Indian communities, such as Gurgaon, Haryana, a satellite city south of New Delhi, are beginning to rediscover the role that streets play in the social and economic spheres of their lives. Streets are no longer just for getting from point A to point B, they are A and B—they are places and destinations in and of themselves.
During my most recent trip home to India I made sure to leave a Sunday free for Raahgiri Day—an event that has recently been making the rounds on social media. Even before going to India, the buzz surrounding Raahgiri Day was loud enough to reach my ears here in New York City. Open Streets in the heart of Gurgaon? Thousands of people? Every Sunday? I had to learn more.
With a population of nearly 1 million people, Gurgaon has quickly become the “Silicon Valley” of India. The city contains offices for more than half of the Fortune 500 companies, and it has the 3rd highest per capita income in India (not bad for a city that is still blooming in terms of both infrastructure and demographics). The city’s growth continues steadily, despite its rising crime rate and frequent power outages. Even with all this growth, Gurgaon still has almost no sidewalks or bike routes, and for the 2/3 of the population that doesn't rely on cars on a daily basis, this can make their commute a mortal trial. If there are spaces for slower moving forms of traffic, they often attract negative uses such as illegal parking, idling, and trash dumping. Indians have not lost the habits of walking, bicycling, vending, or celebrating on their streets—though this non-motorized transportation it is often by necessity and not choice.
Raahgiri Day has grown as a result of these trends and as a response to the social, economic, and spatial needs of the community. Inspired by Ciclovia, a weekly open street event in Bogota, Colombia, Raahgiri day has provided momentum for the ever-increasing Streets as Places movement. Advocates of Streets as Places—as places not just for cars, but also for people—know that these habits are monumental for transforming global thinking about transportation.
Because Gurgaon’s Raahgiri had been cancelled on September 21st, due to state elections, I attended the Connaught Place (CP) Raahgiri in New Delhi along with Manisha Balani, a practicing Urban Designer in Gurgaon. Like Gurgaon, CP is known for being auto-dominated and wide concentric circular arterials in the heart of New Delhi. With some inner streets approaching a width of 13 meters (nearly 43 feet), closing the inner loop for an event like Raahgiri, even for the brief period of 6:00 - 9:00am, is no small feat. We arrived at 7:00am to find a nearly packed parking lot, a good start indeed!
As we entered the event we passed a handful of security personnel at one of its many entry points. Until 9:00 am, the official end of Raahgiri, we witnessed various activities taking place on the event’s radial streets such as yoga, Zumba, dance fitness, theatre and more. On the kilometer-long inner circle—the backbone of Raahgiri—we strolled amongst pedestrians, cyclists, and rollerbladers. This spider-like layout enabled people to join activities and mill around at their own leisure. Of the organized activities, “Dance Fitness,” sponsored by national partner Reebok, was the most popular (which was not surprising given Northern Indians’ penchant for dance-themed activities). In addition, the empty parking lots that dotted the closed-off streets provided space for informal group activities like football, drum circles, and group readings. The event was overflowing with energy, each activity attracted mass participation and those who could not, or did not participate in an organized event were doing their own things regardless of who was watching. (For extensive media coverage of one such Sunday, take a look at this NDTV piece.)
While India is well known for being the land of the bystander, especially in public spaces, Raahgiri shows a totally different picture of the Indian public space ethic. Judging by the event’s massive success, it is clear that there is a want and need of more public space. The normally deserted Sunday streets of New Delhi would appear to be empty not because of fear or laziness but because of a lack of public space and things to do! Whether it was the timing, the availability of amenities, or the group-oriented programming, Raahgiri is inspiring people to come out of their shells and into the spotlight of their community. Families with infants and toddlers, teenagers, adults, and seniors are not only present, but they are actively participating in Raahgiri.
Raahgiri translates into “Giving the streets back to the community” or “a sweet rebellion.” While this rebellion has surely been sweet, it also resulted from rigorous planning and outreach strategies on the part of a Non-Motorized Transportation think tank (NMT) and the team’s robust partnerships with groups like the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), the Fire Department, and City Transportation Departments.
Amit Bhatt, Strategy Head for Urban Transport at Embarq India and founding partner of Raahgiri, is very proud of the success of his “Team,” comprising of Embarq India, I am Gurgaon, The Heritage School, Pedalyatri, and Duplays, who had taken up leadership roles for technical assistance, fundraising, community outreach, creative direction and logistics. Team Raahgiri is actively engaged with communities throughout the country in how to kick-start similar initiatives, and fact that it remains intact and engaged to this day stands as a model for how to successfully build a campaign in a diverse community with a vast number of new/relocated residents.
The team has taken a very “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” (LQC) approach to transforming their streets into bustling public places. Participants don’t have to bring a thing, since the event’s partners provide moveable amenities like pop-up stages and bicycles. All people have to do is find a spot and claim it, which is easy when there are light and bright informational signs planted every couple hundred steps. This transformation of the Streets of CP, previously serving a singular function, demonstrates the close connection between a successful public space and economic vitality of the neighborhood.
By creating visual exhibits and handing out flyers with quick tips, these organizations have used this great opportunity to educate people about traffic rules, disaster response strategies, active living, and green living/sustainability practices. Team Raahgiri has been very deliberate with its partnerships, ensuring that Raahgiri continues to be community-owned and maintained. The maintenance and management teams were on top of their game, and enjoyed talking about how the initiative was expanding each day, creating a need for bigger and better Raahgiri.
During a telephone interview, Amit Bhatt underscored the real question surrounding the equitable use of India’s city streets: “If a safe environment for walking and biking is provided to the community, will people bike and walk?” Bhatt is adamant in his declaration that “Raahgiri is not a festival, it is a movement—a short-term occasion for long-term change. For Raahgiri, the “long term” means twenty-four-seven—permanent policy and infrastructural changes to make walking, bicycling, slow moving and socialization a vital and structural part of the streets. “The vehicle problem can’t be solved,” explains Bhatt, “but access can be improved and the linkages can be enhanced.” And the people agree. Around the time of the preliminary meetings that led to Raahgiri, community groups had already been marching for safe and inclusive streets. The key issues and motivators for supporting NMT are statistics such as the following:
The success of Raahgiri also shows that in order for a space to become a Place, it doesn’t need to be fancy; it only needs to be human. The more flexible it is, the better it caters to its ever-changing audience. But just one great Place is not enough. To be a great city, New Delhi needs a multitude of places and a variety of things to do within them. When it comes to public space improvements, many opportunities already exist within the current fabric of the city. The focus for future efforts shouldn't be on carving out new public spaces, but on rethinking, reclaiming, transforming, and linking existing underutilized public spaces.
In India, this seems to be only the beginning of a revolution. With several other Raahgiri events in the pipeline and an increasing dialogue on road safety and the role of streets in the built environment, the next decade will be crucial. Needless to say, I will be there every year (if not more frequently) to experience the pulse of Raahgiri and to extract its lessons.
Read more about Ciclovia, the inspiration behind Raahgiri:
Special thanks to Manisha Balani (DADA Partners), living and working in Delhi Metropolitan area since 2007, for her support in conducting this study, and Amit Bhatt (Embarq India and a major force behind Raahgiri).