- New Delhi is trying to combat its chronic air pollution with a car-free day each month
- More than 1,400 new cars are added to New Delhi's streets every day
- Hong Kong, London and LA are also implementing changes to improve their air quality
New Delhi (CNN)The world's most polluted city is trying a new experiment to freshen its air: a "car-free day."
For five hours on Thursday morning, New Delhi's transport authorities asked drivers to avoid a usually traffic-clogged, six-kilometer stretch of road along the city's iconic India Gate.
It's the first of a series of car-free days being implemented on different stretches of road in the city on the 22nd of each month, in a desperate attempt by the government to reduce the city's traffic and air pollution.
Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of the state of Delhi, led a rally of cyclists to mark the event.
Fundamental changes needed
Delhi's government has arranged for free rides on the city's colorful three-wheeled auto-rickshaws across the car-free zone and is encouraging families to use public transport. The city's three-wheelers and buses run on compressed natural gas, which makes them a cleaner alternative to cars that run on petrol or diesel.
Office-hour traffic on the streets of New Delhi would have been limited even without a car-free day on Thursday as residents were celebrating Dussehra, an important Indian Hindu festival.
The government was also keen to emphasize the voluntary nature of the initiative.
"This is not a ban on cars," said Kuldeep Singh Gangar, the special commissioner for transport in New Delhi. "We leave it up to the people to volunteer. We have realized that people respond to voluntary activities much better over a period of time."
Despite the plan, some environmental groups said far more fundamental changes were urgently needed to address Delhi's chronic air pollution problem.
The car-free day is "not going to make that big of an impact," said Anumita Roychowdhury, the Executive Director at the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), adding that the main takeaway would be raising awareness.
"We need to sensitize people and make them aware of the need to use public transport systems," said Roychowdhury. "This will have to be supported with very hard decisions that the city requires today."
India recently submitted its climate agenda to a United Nations body promising to generate 40% of its total energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2030.
Over 1,400 new cars each day
New Delhi's streets are often clogged with traffic and more than 1,400 new cars are added every day to the 8.5 million vehicles already in service, according to the CSE. Cars alone account for 62% of transport-related pollution.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked New Delhi as having the world's most polluted air, according to a report released in April 2015, which was based on air quality tests in 1,600 cities in 2014. New Delhi's air had an average PM2.5 level of 153, the highest concentration of all the cities surveyed and far ahead of New York's reading of 14 and Beijing's 56.
PM2.5 particles are not visible, but they go deep into the lungs, and are more likely to cause chronic health problems, according to the WHO. Their safety threshold for PM2.5 concentration in the air for humans is 10.
However, the report also noted that New Delhi is not alone in trying to clear its air, with other large cities across the globe battling ongoing air pollution problems. New Delhi joins some of these other cities -- like Beijing, Bangkok, and Paris -- in putting in place car-free days.