The urban street has been pivotal to the Covid-19 lockdown experience. On the one hand, the “recovered” beauty of the empty city is being captured by drone films, making many residents wish that the breathing space, clean light and blue skies they show could be sustained after the lockdown. On the other, the locked-down street has left lakhs of informal street workers without livelihoods and cut myriad supply chains.

Clearly, the lockdown can only be a temporary measure. But what do we do with the street once the city starts opening up? Does the pandemic require us to reimagine the street?

“Street” and “road” are synonyms – except that they aren’t. The street is a living social space, while the road is a mere instrument for getting us from point A to point B. The street is not just a physical space – it is what the great urbanist Jane Jacobs called a “ballet” synchronising many different practices of living, working and moving in the city. This ballet takes place in what is called the Right of Way. This is the publicly owned channel of movement that runs between lines of privately owned land parcels. Its width is divided into the carriageway for vehicles and footpaths for pedestrians.

Over the last decade, the total vehicular population has more than tripled in Mumbai from approximately 8.5 lakh in 1998 to 30 lakh in 2017. But given the high value of flanking private properties, it is not easy to widen the Right of Way. Distributing its width between different users is almost a zero-sum game: if you widen traffic lanes, the footpath must shrink and vice versa.

The lives of the street

For the law, the state and engineers, urban streets are roads first and foremost – they exist only to move automobiles, goods and people. But the street plays more roles than this acknowledges. First, it provides livelihoods to an estimated 3 lakh informal vendors in Mumbai. If each supports a family of five, Mumbai’s streets alone may well feed over a million people.

These vendors help the overwhelming majority of the urban population to access affordable food, clothing, and everyday commodities.

In addition, the street also offers a space of leisure and community life, especially for half of Mumbai’s population living in slums and cramped housing. Through all this, the street keeps us oriented to the social and political life of the city.

The city would not be itself if the street were not to host these functions. Unfortunately, they are devalued by the now-outdated car-centric modernist planning ideology that only sees the road in the street. The other pillar of this ideology is the sanctity of private property, which the modernist street (as road) is meant to service as mere “infrastructure”.

Because of its refusal to acknowledge the full reality of the street, we could call this the “design-in-denial” approach to building and managing the street.

The state implements this approach and the middle classes support it uncritically, both judging the actual reality of the Indian urban street as “chaotic”. However, that reality is a result of real pressures. Quite simply, there is no space (or land) available for the different functions that the street has historically performed – and continued to play until the car began to take over the street worldwide in the 20th century.

On the one hand, formal private property is concentrated in the hands of a few, and therefore unaffordable to most people earning a livelihood by selling essential goods and services on the street.

On the other, urban governance and planning have been unable and unwilling to acquire and allocate adequate land, space and facilities for many of these functions, including truck parking and adequate marketplaces.

Design-in-denial thus compels transgressions: not just informal vendors, even police chowkis come up on the Right of Ways. Typically, such transgressions convert the public space of the street – “owned” by the state in theory – into something like a commons: a resource like fresh air that is open to use for personal benefit (survival), as long as it is not exhausted or destroyed in the process. The Indian street is a street only as an urban commons.

Expanding road, shrinking street

As transgression of law, “commoning” necessarily has a precarious existence. Whether intentionally or not, the street it creates in the Right of Way is easily dismantled by state projects of planning – a process that some see as rational. Over the last two decades, the street has shrunk within the Right of Way in Mumbai as the enlarged road system has expanded the culture of what social scientists call “automobility”. Roads have been widened, extended, elevated, and their network consolidated through flyovers, all to speed up private automobile traffic.

In addition, pavement railings, concrete medians and skywalks have been built to keep pedestrians off the roads so traffic is not interrupted. Once split into slivers, the common space of the street is easily dominated and dismantled by the road.

Cars are responsible for only a tenth of all daily trips in Mumbai as as they have expanded their claim on the Right of Way, two things have happened. The space for public buses (responsible for 21% of the city’s daily work trips and non-motorised modes of transport (which includes pedestrians and cyclists) has shrunk, reducing their speed, safety and functional attractiveness. This is significant. Almost a third of Mumbai’s population walks to work, and everyone must at least walk to the bus stop, railway station or their car.

A Ganesh statue in Mumbai is carried to the sea. Credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP

Private vehicles also take up more road space than their share of trips warrant, effectively privatising public space. Street parking makes this worse. Simultaneously, with footpaths and trees sacrificed to automobile lanes, the majority of street-users – including all walkers and working-class cyclists – are compelled to risk their lives on the street.

Alongside efficient use of space for mobility and the compromise of safety, the social function of the street is also getting compromised.

Perhaps the worst-hit are livelihoods on the street because of a combination of other reasons, all related to the ideology of modernist planning coded into law. The power of this ideology is revealed when we consider that this continues to happen against the spirit (and often the letter) of a law: the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014.

The splitting of the street by flyovers, medians, skywalks and railings cuts off pedestrian flows that are essential not only for informal vendors but even for formal shops. The physical shrinkage and qualitative deterioration of footpaths as well as the railings on their edge, have also reduced the usable width for vendors.

Meanwhile, elite civic activism against informal vending has also led to many court-directed quasi-planning actions like the delineation of hawking and non-hawking zones, or construction of off-street facilities like the hawkers’ plaza in Dadar in central Mumbai . These often fail, being in denial of the logic of natural markets.

The way ahead

The challenges and opportunities of unlocking the city must be seen in this context. Clearly, the street is key to mobility on the one hand, and to livelihoods and the last mile of supply chains of essential goods for the majority of city residents. The usual policy approach of design-in-denial is unlikely to actively help recovery.

First, encouraging car travel would compromise mass mobility, which is the lifeblood of the economy. In Mumbai, for instance, average speeds of BEST buses have slowed significantly in the recent past because of congestion caused by cars whose numbers have increased because of more road space opened up by increased road length, width and improved networks.

The smarter – if counterintuitive for a time of physical distancing – short term response now would be to curtail car usage and sharply increase the supply of public buses and improve their speeds and frequencies by reserving exclusive lanes for them. Since buses can only carry a fraction of their passenger capacity to comply with physical distancing norms, this would be one way of increasing throughput.

Encouraging cycling and pedestrian traffic by temporarily allocating more width for them is also crucial. Of course, this will not be adequate, especially in Mumbai even if the suburban trains resume with physical distancing. But anything less would be much worse. The government is bending slowly to this way of thinking. However, it is still far from acknowledging the street in its fullness as a commons.

A dabbawalla in Mumbai. Credit: Puneet Paranjpe/AFP

Is the street-as-commons the magic solution? Well, there are no magic solutions. However, formalising the commons vision, even if provisionally, is a practical step for the social recovery of the city. The poor are the city, in one sense. And street vending is estimated to contribute 11% of urban employment in India.

In another sense, the city at large also runs on their labour, more specifically on the self-exploitation that the economic system forces on them. The acuteness of their precarity was visible to all in the long and terrible march migrant workers among them undertook weeks ago. The commoning of the public street is often the only available basis for their survival.

More than the road then, the commoned street, with significant priority for public and non-motorised transport, is likely to be the more effective pathway to multi-dimensional recovery, difficult as that is going to be.

Himanshu Burte is an architect and urbanist, and Associate Professor at Centre for Urban Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay. The views expressed in the article are the author’s personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect those of IIT Bombay.

A time of unprecedented social suffering and uncertainty, Covid-19 serves as a moment of crisis as well as possibility for making urban policy differently. This article is part of an eight-part series that seeks to address the question of how the pandemic could be used to transform Mumbai into a more inclusive, resilient city. Read the other articles here.