Thomson Reuters Foundation
India will make its streets and markets more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists as it emerges from one of the world's strictest coronavirus lockdowns, a move urgently needed to curb pollution and improve livability, urban experts said.
An advisory issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs recommended the pedestrianization of up to three markets in each city, and adding more bicycle lanes.
City authorities must select the markets by June 30, and begin implementing short-term measures from Oct. 1, it said.
"COVID-19 presents us with an opportunity to reimagine streets for people," Durga Shanker Mishra, the ministry's secretary, said in a statement last week.
"As cities look to ease the lockdown and provide safe, affordable and equitable modes of transport, the need for pedestrianization of market spaces through walking- and cycling-friendly cities is of utmost importance," he added.
While cities worldwide ease lockdown restrictions, some are closing roads to vehicles, adding bicycle lanes, widening pavements and handing over parking spaces to cafes.
In India, authorities should consult with vendors and residents on immediate measures such as barricades, road closures and repurposing of parking spaces, the urban affairs ministry said.
Authorities in India - home to more than half the 10 most polluted cities in the World Air Quality Report index - can also use unclaimed and under-utilized public spaces to increase walkability, it added.
Pedestrianization of streets and market places is "not only feasible, but the only viable option", and key to restoring safety, vibrancy and livability in communities, said Jaya Dhindaw, director of urban planning at research firm WRI India.
"For the longest time, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure has been the lowest priority despite the fact that non-motorized transport is affordable, people-friendly and offers huge social, economic and environmental benefits," she said on Wednesday.
"What seems like a necessary step to aid movement during the health crisis definitely has the potential to re-wire cities' mobility trends," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Under India's Smart Cities program that aims to make 100 urban centers more livable and sustainable, some cities had already been promoting public transit and bicycle lanes.
The southern Indian city of Chennai has carved out more than 100 km (62 miles) of pedestrian-friendly streets, the urban affairs ministry noted.
Chennai's efforts paid off during the lockdown, said Raj Cherubal, chief executive of Chennai Smart City Ltd.
"We should use the coronavirus as an excuse to rejig our streets and our approach to public transit," he said.
"India doesn't have a choice but to do this to limit emissions, and curb congestion and pollution."
With India grappling with an economic downturn caused by the pandemic, authorities facing shrinking budgets will need to be innovative in their mobility plans, Dhindaw noted.
"Small-ticket items like non-motorized transport infrastructure expansion and improvements that got left out in the scramble for metro and light-rail will now see renewed interest," she said.
"In the long term, it will lead to more equitable and inclusive cities."