Car-free Kala Ghoda: Can Mumbai make it work?

Car-free streets in the heritage area of south Mumbai are likely to open up more recreation options and also lead to cleaner air in the area.

Imagine you are walking around Kala Ghoda, appreciating the heritage architecture, art galleries, food and fashion hotspots, and now imagine that it’s a car-free road. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is considering declaring five streets around Kala Ghoda in Colaba car-free for specific hours on weekends. This proposal has come from the Kala Ghoda Association (KGA), which organises the popular Kala Ghoda Festival annually for the past 24 years. 

At present, the Rampart Row Street, now officially known as the K Dubash Street, is closed for vehicular access for the nine days of the Kala Ghoda Festival. The KGA has suggested that five streets – Forbes Street, Rope Walk Lane, Saibaba Road, Rutherfield Street and B. Bharucha Road – be declared car-free on a regular basis. 

“The streets of Kala Ghoda are a beautiful stretch with heritage gothic buildings surrounded by restaurants and boutiques that can be explored on a casual stroll, like in European countries. We are hoping that the BMC will allow restaurants to put chairs outside on pavements and streets for those hours. A beautification plan with cobbled pathways, landscaping and heritage street lamps is also on the anvil,” informs Brinda Miller, honorary chairperson of the KGA. 

“It could be declared car-free on weekends initially. It will be difficult on working days, as the area is also a commercial hub. We hope this model gets replicated on other streets of Mumbai as well. The idea is to encourage pedestrianism,” she adds.  

Assistant municipal commissioner (A-ward) Jaydeep More informed that the initiative will be implemented soon after the electoral code of conduct ends by June 4.

He said, “The space vacated by the parked cars could be utilised for strolling or dining or shopping on these narrow streets. Currently, it is being considered on an experimental basis to assess how people respond to it. There are challenges like parking facilities for offices located here during the weekends, though they do have the alternative of using existing pay-n-park available at the traffic junction nearby.”

A beautification drive involving improving pathways and installing heritage street lights will also be taken up simultaneously. 


Read more: Citizens’ forum draws up plan for more open spaces in Mumbai


Has the car free streets initiative been implemented before? 

The idea of car free streets has been tried earlier in Mumbai, albeit with different nomenclatures. However, it did not succeed beyond a few days. Initiatives like Happy Streets, Equal Streets or even Sunday Streets have been tried in the past but all of them fizzled out over time.

All these concepts involved a common theme – streets remain free of cars for fixed hours on a particular stretch and have free access to citizens for activities such as skating, playing games or Yoga. 

Mili Shetty, chief coordinator of Charkop Sector 8 Vikas Samiti, recalls that though citizens’ response was enthusiastic, it failed to last beyond four Sundays in her area. This is because the officer pushing for it, Sanjay Pandey, the then director general of police, retired. 

“Till he was there, the traffic police would dutifully turn up a day earlier and clear streets off old parked vehicles by making public appeals on their speakers. Other vehicles would be towed away to another end of the street. About 70 abandoned vehicles were also taken off our streets back then. The entire street would be barricaded and opened up entirely for us,” Mili recalls. 

However, soon after Sanjay Pandey retired, the police refused to offer organisational support and the whole movement just fizzled out for lack of policy support, she said.

Various activities such as yoga and skating are organised on car free streets with participation from children. Pic: Mili Shetty

Rishi Aggarwal, founder of Walkability Project, who himself was part of the Equal Streets Initiative in 2015, says, “Programs based on a single personality or organisation will fail to sustain for long; it has to be purpose driven. Car free concept fails to resonate with the majority of middle-class users because they worship the idea of personal cars. We need to figure out whether mobility is important or the means of mobility.” 

Why is another car-free street initiative proposed?

Across the world, these car free movements are essentially reactions against an excessive number of private cars creating jams, congesting streets and blocking spaces in cities. Currently, Mumbai has the highest vehicular density among metro cities in India with 2300 vehicles per km. The city has over 46 lakh vehicles, a 25% rise in the last five years. 

“One car blocks up 250 sq ft of parking space in three different places namely at residence, office and recreation spaces like malls, theatres etc in a span of just one day. Cumulatively, it works out to 750 sq ft space per car per day, way higher than the average family space of 300 sq ft in Mumbai,” argues Rishi. 

Rishi feels that a major roadblock for the car free concept is the mindset shift. He says cars are perceived as a luxury lifestyle, upgradation of social status by the middle-class, who aspire for it and patronise it with car loans. 

What is the status of car-free cities abroad? 

The concept of car free streets have been picking up in a huge way abroad with cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona and countries like Poland and Finland adopting it as a State policy. In some cities, few streets are kept car free and roads are restructured to be replaced with cycling tracks or gardens or public spaces. 

Poland has been observing world car free day since 2004 and parking spaces have been replaced by green open spaces on certain stretches. Barcelona had dedicated car free superblock zones, where streets are being redesigned to provide more squares, more public seating and more tree-lined green avenues. Roads were declared car free and were open only for cyclists or pedestrians. Similarly, Glasgow converted car lanes into cycle lanes and similar exercises are happening in Spain and Netherlands.

Closer home, the car free movement is picking up beyond the hill stations like Matheran, which have always been car free. Crowded stretches like Delhi’s Chandni Chowk have been declared car free zones throughout the day. Cities like Pune are also working towards it.

A meeting of Fridays For Future at Aarey Picnic Point garden on April, 2024, where they met to discuss on how to make Mumbai car free. Pic: Hepzi Anthony

“Such initiatives involves a major policy shift and is the result of strong political will backed up by strong citizen support,” says Yash Agrawal, co-ordinator for Fridays for Future, Mumbai. The organisation is now advocating for such policy shifts in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) and other Indian cities. 

Yash believes that excessive car usage is inducing construction of infrastructure for private vehicles like coastal roads, flyovers, highways etc by the State. “This chain needs to be broken to stem resultant issues like pollution, congestion, traffic jams,” he says.

Can the car-free streets concept be replicated here?

Though the car-free movement is slowly picking up in India, activists have reservations about whether it will gain momentum. The ill effects of cars such as traffic congestion, pollution, fatal road accidents, are already being felt in major Indian cities. However, activists doubt if people will be ready to ban cars considering that cars have come to occupy a space in our consciousness beyond its utilitarian role of providing mobility. 

Rishi says, “Though only 8 % of Indians own private cars; it holds a huge aspirational value among public transport users, who dream of buying cars to travel comfortably together with their entire families.

The car-free movement, at least in Mumbai, has failed to communicate the many ill-effects of high car density in deteriorating quality of city life. The importance of a good public transport system coupled with quality walking and cycling spaces as alternative green mobility options has not been stressed enough. Cars are worshipped today and activists pushing for car-free concept tend to be viewed as impractical or even anti-poor since they attack at the very core dream of owning a car,” says Rishi.  

Officials also echo this. “The car free initiative looks difficult to replicate. The streets of Kala Ghoda are deserted in the evenings and very few offices operate there beyond the restaurants and boutiques. Such an ideal case scenario doesn’t exist on many streets,” says Jaydeep More, the BMC official, who oversees the Fort-Colaba area of Mumbai. He rues that people prefer cars parked right below their buildings and do not wish to walk to the nearest parking lot. 

As Rishi says, a majority of our commuters use public transport. He and other activists and planners have been saying that the solution is to convince the private car user to opt for public transport by making our bus, local train and metro systems and last mile connectivity robust.

Car free streets initiative is one way to advocate for less dependence on private vehicles. And for now, soaking in the art deco buildings and the history and heritage of Kala Ghoda on weekends, on wide car free streets, can be a very good starting point.

What can you do to make your city more car-free?
* You can volunteer with organisations like the Fridays for Future that meet regularly to ideate and work on how to make MMR more car-free.

* You can check their pages on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook or write to fridaysforfuturemumbai@gmail.com.  

* Also, if you are able to identify streets in your locality, which could be kept car free for specific hours during the week, you can push for the same with the local traffic and civic authorities. Please remember this is not an individual initiative and you may need the support of your local neighbourhood resident associations.  

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