For three months starting February, Delhi’s civic authorities are planning to attempt the seemingly impossible: making Connaught Place, the city’s bustling central business district, a pedestrian zone.

The pilot project, cleared by the union urban development ministry last week, will involve closing the Inner and Middle Circles of Connaught Place to all motorised vehicles, which will be allowed to park outside the pedestrian zone. Only pedestrians, cyclists and some battery-operated vehicles would then be allowed inside the circle. The aim of the project is to turn at least a part of the perennially crowded district into a congestion-free, accident-free space.

If Delhi succeeds in this ambitious experiment and makes Connaught Place a permanent pedestrian zone, it would be a first for an Indian metropolis. Pedestrian zones are an increasingly common urban phenomenon around the world, but in Indian cities, urban planners campaigning for them have met with very limited success.

“All over the world, cities are planned by prioritising pedestrians first, followed by public transport and then private transport,” said Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the Urban Design Research Institute, an urban policy think tank in Mumbai. “But in India our priorities are backwards – we put private transport ahead while planning our cities.”

In metros like Mumbai and Chennai, attempts to completely pedestrianise certain roads, by blocking out all vehicles, have worked only as weekly experiments or one-off street festivals. Even more modest efforts to make city roads pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly are yet to take off.

“So far, we cannot claim any single area to be successfully pedestrianised in Indian cities,” said PK Das, an architect and urban planner from Mumbai who believes that selecting just one or two roads for pedestrians and cyclists will not succeed in addressing concerns about traffic and vehicular congestion. “In a city of anarchy we cannot have just small islands of excellence. Focusing on pedestrians has to be a part of the larger master plan for the city.”

Mumbai efforts

A city with more than 12 million residents and 25 lakh vehicles, Mumbai has seen many proposals to promote pedestrian-friendly streets over the years. An ongoing experiment that urban planners are keenly watching is the city’s first pedestrian street that opened in October 2016 in South Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda district. The street in question – colloquially known as Rampart Row – is closed to traffic every year during the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in February, but for the past three months, one side of the road is made into a pedestrian zone from 9 am to 9 pm every Sunday. “Right now, locals are the only ones taking advantage of that, but eventually this pilot can be replicated in other parts of the city too,” said Joshi.

December 2016 saw two other pilot initiatives to make Mumbai more pedestrian-friendly. One was a three-day street festival for pedestrians in Ranwar, which once was a quiet agricultural village in suburban Bandra. Today, however, Ranwar has been reduced to a narrow lane with dense traffic, noise and air pollution. “Just a handful of the cars passing through Ranwar actually belong to the residents – the rest form ‘through’ traffic of motorists trying to avoid the main road,” said Samir D’Monte, an architect who worked with residents to help organise the Ranwar festival from December 9 to 11.

For the festival, organisers sought permission to close the street to traffic from 4 pm to 8 pm so that residents could use the street for setting up stalls and live music performances celebrating their culture. Organisers now plan to make this an annual festival. But according to Asif Zakaria, the civic corporator in Bandra, this temporary block on traffic through Ranwar worked only because it was for a few hours on three days. “Initially there was a proposal by residents to completely pedestrianise the road, but others in the vicinity complained that blocking a short-cut would only increase traffic on the main road,” said Zakaria.

On December 29, after nearly a year of convincing police and civic authorities, Zakaria launched another effort to make the city less car-centric – a 1.2 km cycling track on Bandra’s seaside Carter Road. Unfortunately, the much-delayed project was almost an instant failure, as New Year’s Eve revellers disregarded the barricades to park their cars right on the track. “The first thing people think of for roads is parking,” said Zakaria. “Everyone likes the idea of pedestrian or cycle-friendly roads, but they don’t want it to happen in their backyards. This mindset needs to change.”

Hyderabad initiatives

In 1999, civic authorities in Hyderabad announced the Charminar Pedestrian Project, which envisioned the precinct around the heritage Charminar monument as a vehicle-free zone. The project involved building outer and inner ring roads around the monument, with four wide, cobbled pavements for pedestrians leading up to the centre.

However, construction of the roads didn’t even begin till 2007. In March last year, even though Rs 30 crore had already been spent on the project and Rs 35.10 crore had been additionally allotted, the ring roads had not yet been completed. Meanwhile, civic authorities have not been able to proceed with cobble-stone work on Lad Bazaar road either, because of opposition of shopkeepers in the area.

“The plan was to completely block out traffic around Charminar and make the whole zone tourist-friendly, but even after all these years, the project has not taken off at all,” said Kanthimatti Kannan, founder of the Right2Walk campaign that works to improve pedestrian facilities in Hyderabad. “For a plan like this to work, the whole area needs to decongest first.”

Chennai’s attempts

Despite being a metropolis, a large number of Chennai’s roads have not had pavements for years. In 2014, the city adopted a new non-motorised transport policy to flip its priorities from vehicles to pedestrians. Instead of focusing on the creation of a few pedestrian zones, the comprehensive policy envisions a city-wide network of good pavements, cycling tracks and “greenways” where motorised vehicles will be restricted.

According to the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy, which is helping the civic corporation design the policy, Chennai’s plan is in progress and new pavements have been built on 46 streets. One design test was also conducted on a Sunday morning in November 2016, when Pondy Bazaar street in T Nagar was pedestrianised for four hours.

“In the test, we saw that pedestrians who came were happy with the street activities that were organised, but shopkeepers were concerned about losing their customers if people were not allowed to drive right up to them,” said Aswathy Dilip, the Tamil Nadu programmes manager at ITDP. “Change is difficult for people in the beginning, and such concerns have been observed all over the world.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this report stated that the design test conducted in Chennai’s Pondy Bazaar street was in December 2016. It was in November 2016.