Reclaiming our public spaces

Reclaiming our public spaces

Reclaiming our public spaces
Conquered by a ceaseless, unnerving motorized transport brigade, the city’s public spaces have succumbed without a fight. Pedestrians, young and old, have lost out. But a late collective push to reclaim those spaces is now in top gear. Does it have the momentum to last?

Indeed, the resounding success of the recent ‘Open Streets’ initiative on M G Road did give a hyper-boost to walkability. The thousands who thronged the vehicle-free stretch of road and relished the experience gushed in collective joy: We want more. Yet, larger questions remain unanswered.

Those fixated with their private cars chose not to take the special BMTC shuttle buses.Neither did they opt for the Namma Metro. Inevitably, they got trapped in the parking chaos on roads leading to the Open Street. There lay the problem: An obsession with cars starkly at odds with a concept designed to celebrate walkability.

For long, this powerful personal transport sector has dictated road use in Bengaluru. Streets have been widened to accommodate more cars and SUVs as footpaths shrink dramatically.

 It is this flawed strategy that is now being challenged with an alternative, pedestrian and cyclist-oriented approach. Bengaluru Coalition for Open Streets (BCOS) member, Sathya Sankaran reasons that the car-centric way of looking at life is clearly not sustainable in the long run. Roads cannot be the monopoly of motorized transport. The Car-free Day organized in HSR Layout last September was designed to drive home this point.

Positive feedback

Public feedback to the concept has been extremely positive. Says Sankaran,“They want longer stretches of the road to be made vehicle-free on Open Streets days. They want more such days and are proud that Bengaluru is emerging as a model to emulate for other cities.”

The city traffic police did get caught up in managing the increased traffic around the Open Streets area. But Additional Commissioner of Police, Traffic, M A Saleem feels the experiments in Commercial Street and M G Road are worth repeating.

“We are now getting requests to organise similar events from Avenue Road, Jayanagar and other localities. It is hard work for the police, but we are prepared to do it,” says Saleem.

But the overwhelming response and the over-crowding on a limited stretch did spark a few questions: Why not spread out the Open Streets concept across the city? Why not arrange simultaneous events in different parts to maximize the experience of a street as a walking space?

Challenges

Sankaran agrees it could be ideal but hastens to add that multiple events could pose huge challenges of logistics. People did enjoy walking, dancing, singing skating and shopping on Open Streets day. But without a bunch of committed volunteers and a multi-agency support system, the event could have faltered.

Could the crowds have enjoyed the idea of  ‘place-making’ better without the commercial stalls? A lot of visitors felt so on the Open Street Day. So does urban architect, Naresh Narasimhan. “It should be about hanging out, about people performing and creating stuff than selling. Leave the street alone, don’t add extra things. A few food stalls could be allowed but avoid the stalls,” is his suggestion. 

Nevertheless, the huge turnout shows that a community well informed about sustainable mobility solutions is gathering in strength. That is good. But shouldn’t the momentum be maintained? The HSR Layout Car-free Day experiment failed to bring any changes in the commute patterns in the area, points out Sanjay Sridhar from C40 Cities, a global collective of cities sharing their best practises in diverse areas of urban concern.

Larger vision

There has to be a larger vision. “In Haryana, the Raahagiri Day (India's first sustained car-free citizen initiative that began in Gurgaon in November, 2013) does not have the same financial support and government backing now,” notes Sridhar. The vision he suggests is this: Permanently close down traffic on certain stretches, a strategy proved successful in Times Square, New York City. “There should be a strategic plan to make this happen. It is a tough choice, but inevitable to reclaim our public spaces.” Is Bengaluru ready for it?

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