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Car-free day: An idea whose time has come

November 24, 2011 16:18 IST

I for one would not use a car on Novermber 27, which is car-free day for Sounth Mumbai. For from tokenism and symbolism good ideas can come to grow and make a difference, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

A care-free South Mumbai on November 27 is a good idea. For it is an idea from the people, an idea which is finding support from the police, and something whose time has come to be spread to larger tracts of as many cities and towns as possible.

Two organisations, Greenmile Foundation and Baramati Welfare Organisation have organised this and asked people to desist from using their cars. To rub in the fact that alternatives do exist, they have decided upon a walkathon and a bikeathon in the same area. The message is simple: you shouldn't use the car, so use your legs -- walk or peddle.

But would the car-free idea work in the long run? In this case, it could on Sunday because fewer people take to the roads; fewer people have work-related journeys to undertake so it suits them to jell with the fashion of the day. Try enforcing that on a weekday and disaster would await the campaign. People would go to the relevant Facebook page, if there is one, or a relevant portal dedicated to this, click 'like' to mark their support and take their car out.

This, by no means, is an effort at belittling the organisers of the effort to educate the people on the ills, despite the comfort, of using a transport which often carries only the driver or sometimes driver plus a passenger. I recall a statistic that said the occupancy of cars in Mumbai was only 1.2 per car. It is as low as it can get.

Where this movement would come up against is the question, if I don't use the car, what do I use to get about?

A bus? In most cities, they are not enough, which is why people took to the cars they cannot afford.

A train? Not all cities have them and those which do, are so jam-packed the very prospect of a trip on them is terrifying.

Walk? In Mumbai there are not enough footpaths -- as is with many other urban spaces -- and it is used for everything else but the comfort and safety of a pedestrian.

While getting people to leave cars in their parking slots -- are there enough?! -- is a noble thing for it puts priorities of urban life in proper perspective. It has to secure a planning response to the question -- where are the alternative ways to get about. A rich friend of mine in Hong Kong who can afford to keep a fleet of cars uses the public transport. They are reliable and useable. Likewise, in many other places. 

This idea has worked remarkably in some Swiss cities I am familiar with. Take Zermatt at the foot of Matterhorn. The town set its face against internal combustion engine-powered cars settled for electric ones which cost a bomb. That city has perhaps fewer than two dozen of even such cars because affording one is not the criteria to buy one. The town has to have a referendum and decide if a citizen could be authorised to buy for they already have a clutter of tourists. Even they are expected to leave their cars in another town and take a train to Zermatt.

Of course, car-free cities are a pipedream; the way every city has grown makes it impossible to even consider it. But car-free streets, sectors are possible provided there is a design to it. Recently, to make shopping for Diwali a better experience, Thane Police declared three main roads a pedestrian plaza only for a few hours per day but it met with disaster. Shop owners and car users nixed it using several excuses. It had to be called a day after only one road was closed to cars.

There are advantages in thickly populated cities like Mumbai if car free zones are a permanent feature. The children could walk back home without the risk of being run over. They could, as we did in our childhood, play on the streets, any street, for there were hardly any cars.

The solution lies in quick responses in improving the public transport system as in Mumbai.  The time taken to conceptualise, plan and execute is so much that budgets go out of kilter, the passengers it seeks to accommodate grow nullifying the plan and it always keeps running on a treadmill -- running hard to remain in place.

That, however, is not the case with car-related plans: flyovers, widening of roads, even changing building codes to enable parking of cars. This, I suspect, is because the planners, the authorities, the rent-seekers are from this car-owning class and would do just anything that meets their needs even as they grumble at the daunting nature of the problem; the last for public consumption.

But here are my good wishes to Greenline Foundation and the Baramati Welfare Organisation for taking up a good cause which I hope wakes up not just the car-owning class but also the authorities.

I for one would not use a car that day. For from tokenism and symbolism good ideas can come to grow and make a difference.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs

Mahesh Vijapurkar