Safer Roads Are Car-Free Roads: India's First "Raahgiri Day"

 

17th November 2013, was a groundbreaking day in the history of Gurgaon, when 10,000 people came out of their houses to enjoy the country’s first ever car-free Sunday. Raahgiri Day had arrived!

Without vehicles dominating the streetscape, pedestrians, cyclists, and runners all converged on the streets; children took the opportunity to play soccer, cricket, and badminton; skating enthusiasts honed their skills; and fitness enthusiasts enjoyed Zumba classes.

Ever since the first Raahgiri Day, about 3.5 lac people have joined the movement. The event takes place every Sunday for 4-5 hours in the morning on dedicated stretches of roads which are blocked for motorized traffic and opened for people.

Along with receiving extensive national media coverage, Raahgiri Day recently gained international recognition as one of the 24 most inspiring stories in “Pathways to Green Cities” by the Earth Day Network.

Poor non-motorized tranport in Gurgaon spurs the need for Raahgiri Day

Even with one third of the population in Gurgaon walking or cycling to meet their mobility needs (especially shorter distances of up to 3-4 kms), non-motorized transport facilities are non-existent in the city. Practically no separate lanes are available for non-motorized vehicles forcing pedestrians and cyclists to share main roads with vehicular traffic.

The result is unsafe traffic conditions. With almost all infrastructure designed only for cars, data shows that on average there is one pedestrian or cyclist death in Gurgaon every day.

It is clear that we need to re-examine the way we look at mobility and city design in India. Imagine a city with bicycle paths and pedestrian avenues interwoven throughout its urban landscape. Raahgiri Day is an inspiring first step in reclaiming roads for the people.

The story behind Raahgiri Day

The conceptualization and planning of Raahgiri Day in Gurgaon began over a year ago. Local inhabitants from five organizations: EMBARQ India, IAmGurgaon, Pedalyatri, Duplays Gurgaon and Heritage School, joined hands to create Raahgiri Day.

With the backing of the local administration including the Gurgaon Police, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG), Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) and other public agencies, the coalition commited to making Gurgaon an example of a safe, and sustainable city.

Raahgiri Day is modeled after “Ciclovia”, an event that began in Bogotá, Colombia in 1976, which closed streets to cars and opened them for the exclusive use of people. Today, up to 2 million Bogotá residents from all walks of life still enjoy over 70 miles of car-free streets every Sunday.

In selecting an Indian name for Gurgaon’s event that would resonate with the city’s residents, the organizers chose  “Raahgiri” – a term that combines two concepts. “Raah” refers to a path or journey towards a final goal, and “GandhiGiri” is a colloquial adaptation of Mahatma Gandhi's transformative technique of non-violence. In a city like Gurgaon, where car use is on the rise, one objective of Raahgiri Day is to encourage people to ditch their cars, and get up, get out, and get moving.

Impact of Raahgiri Day in Gurgaon

Close to 500 people die in Gurgaon every year on account of poor road safety, majority of whom are pedestrians and cyclists. There has been a remarkable impact on road safety at the Raahgiri stretch since the event has begun. During a recent survey conducted by EMBARQ India, it was found that there were 5 road fatalities in the Sushant Lok area from Jan-Oct 2013. However, since the event began in November 2013, this number has come down to zero. These statics speak a lot about the potential that this initiative has to make our roads safer. This has also to do with the phenomenal support and participation from Gurgaon Police, who conduct activities at Raahgiri Day every Sunday to generate awareness around road safety.

Another unexpected outcome of Raahgiri Day is the increase in bicycle sales in Gurgaon. “The biggest deterrent to using cycling as a mode of transportation is the lack of availability of a bicycle itself”, says Amit Bhatt. In our survey, out of a sample size of 185, 28% of respondents said that after seeing others cycling on Raahgiri Day, they were convinced to buy a bicycle themselves. In addition, 59% said they now cycle or walk to the Raahgiri venue, while a substantial 87% said they now cycle or walk to cover shorter distances in the city.

According to the survey, 31% people said that they attended Raahgiri Day with friends, and 53% mentioned that they came with their families. For a city like Gurgaon, which is dominated by condominiums and large segregated private properties, Raahgiri Day gives residents an opportunity to meet new people instilling a sense of community amongst residents.

“Instead of sleeping through Sunday mornings, we now prefer to come to Raahgiri Day. The sight of all these young kids jumping and dancing and bands performing is infectious”, says one Raahgiri patron.

Expanding in and beyond Gurgaon

Raahgiri Day began by blocking 4.8 km of roads in the city. But the encouraging turnout every Sunday and numerous requests from citizens soon encouraged the authorities and founding members to conceive of its expansion.

As a result, the route was first exteneded to 11.5 km and then to 14.5 km following Columbia’s “Ciclovia” model, which today, blocks off 120 km every Sunday. But that’s not all. Inspired by Gurgaon, enthusiastic citizens in other parts of the country are also following suit.

In Ludhiana, a 13-year-old school girl was inspired by Raahgiri Day in Gurgaon after visiting the event’s facebook page. She encouraged her friends, teachers and family to host a similar car-free Sunday in Ludhiana.

Another city that has implemented Raahgiri Day is Navi Mumbai. Cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Noida have also shown interest in joining this exciting movement.

While discussing the expansion of the event, Amit Bhatt says, “Raahgiri / Ciclovia is not an end but a means toward an end, which is sustainable development. Ciclovia is one of the factors that led to construction of permanent bikeways (now 320 km network) and sidewalks (all over the city). We hope what Ciclovia did for Bogota, Raahgiri will do the same for India. Our cities will have better infrastructure for active commuters and better quality of life for our children”.

From 4th May, 2014 onwards, MCG and Gurgaon Police have taken on the additional responsibility of organizing Raahgiri Day. Though these public agencies have had a major role to play in the success and growth of the Raahgiri Day movement, it is the first time in history they have decided to own and organize an event of this scale. We can only hope for a future in Gurgaon and beyond where government officials and citizens are working together to bring about safer roads in India. 

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