A walkable Chandni Chowk needs more than traffic control

Soon, only non-motorised transport and emergency vehicles will be allowed from Red Fort to Fatehpuri Masjid during the day.

Updated: Sep 03, 2018 11:50:19

By Shivani Singh

If the Chandni Chowk experiment works, it will become a template for creating car­-free zones in the city. (Virendra Singh Gosain / HT File )

One-and-a-half years after the city authorities dropped the plan to pedestrianise the inner circle of Connaught Place, it has decided to take another shot at establishing a car-free zone — this time in the 380-year-old Chandni Chowk.

Soon, only non-motorised transport and emergency vehicles will be allowed from Red Fort to Fatehpuri Masjid during the day. In a plan approved last week by Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, the administration will have to make adequate parking arrangements, widen sidewalks and shift space-grabbing transformers and public conveniences to the central verge, tuck in overhanging wires and improve the drainage in the next ten months.

If the Chandni Chowk experiment works, it will become a template for creating car-free zones in the rest of the city. If it fails – the government abandoned the Connaught Place project due to resistance from local traders – Delhi is likely to give the idea of pedestrianisation a rest. But more than Delhi, it is Chandni Chowk that cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

Unlike Connaught Place where space is not such a constraint, Chandni Chowk is a terrible civic mess. The streets are chock-a-block with handcarts, e-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and rickety tempos. At night, the old buildings vibrate with the movement of trucks. It is one of the few places in Delhi where one can experience a human traffic jam.

But Chandni Chowk, as a trader who runs a business locally put it, is not just a tourist spot. It is home to people. It is a source of livelihood for thousands of traders and workers. So there are reasonable apprehensions about the car-free zone.

Wouldn’t a ban on vehicles in the main vista push traffic to the adjoining roads? Will there be enough parking outside Chandni Chowk where people can leave their cars safely and walk or take a rickshaw to the pedestrian zone? How will the old and the infirm who depend on their personal cars move around?

Pedestrianisation, as American urban planner and author of “Walkable City” Jeff Speck argues, is not just a nice, idealistic notion. Rather, it is a simple, practical-minded solution to a host of complex problems that undermine economic competitiveness, public welfare and environmental sustainability.

Suffering from each of these deficiencies, Chandni Chowk and much of the old city of Shahjahanabad desperately need some space to breathe and cars are not the only thing choking it.

It is for a reason that this heritage zone is clubbed with slums and unauthorised colonies in contemporary civic planning. Residents and shopkeepers here have repurposed havelis and heritage buildings into warehouses to accommodate goods and workers. To decongest the old city, all three Master Plans — the oldest dating back to 1962 — proposed relocation of over 40 wholesale markets that operate here.

In 1999, when a fire killed 57 people in the Lal Kuan chemical market, fire tenders could not access the burning buildings because of the clutter. The chemical traders were then asked to move out to Holambi Kalan in the outskirts of Delhi. In 2006, the paper merchants of Chawri Bazar were told to relocate to Ghazipur. But all these markets have stayed put.

Shifting some markets or warehouses will not only free up space and put these areas back on the civic map, it could also help disperse the migrant workers to other neighbourhoods. But the relocation plan must provide equal job opportunities and access to basic public amenities for the workforce.

Enforcement will be the key to the success of the pedestrianisation project. In the past, efforts to clear roads of handcarts, delivery vans and allow only registered cycle rickshaws to ply have failed despite court orders. Worse, streets are now clogged with the totally unregulated e-rickshaws, the most untamed mode of transport on Delhi roads.

Reviving the old city will take more than a traffic rearrangement plan. The most walkable cities such as Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Paris and New York, says Speck, are walkable because of their ‘fabric’ or the everyday collection of streets, blocks and building, which makes walks interesting.

Despite being the seat of 783 buildings of historical value and a vibrant living heritage, the walled city remains the most decrepit part of the capital. It is time the government took the residents and traders on board to restore the havelis and decongest the markets. The pride of Shahjahanabad once hosted regal processions. No reason why it cannot rediscover the freedom and joy of walking.

First Published: Sep 03, 2018 11:48:48


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