Cycling was originally proposed as one of the preferred means of mass transport in Chandigarh city by its designer Le Corbusier himself. Corbusier envisaged laying out cycle tracks (classified as V7 and V8 roads) as part of the Master Plan for the city during its construction in the 1950s. As per the plan, every V3 road (fast vehicular roads dividing the sectors) across the city was to have a V7 road (cycle track), or a V8 road (cycle track plus footpath). “The Master Plan envisaged laying out cycle tracks of over 200 kms,” said Navdeep Asija, Traffic Advisor to the Government of Punjab, “but only a few were laid in the initial years, and then it was forgotten.”
Yet, where Chandigarh failed, Panchkula, the lesser known neighbouring city in Haryana that forms a part of the Chandigarh tri-city area, has succeeded. Panchkula has taken the lead in adopting the cycle as a viable mobility alternative for its citizens.
In Chandigarh, cycling was a popular mode of transport throughout the 60s and 70s, as people moved into the newly constructed houses, joined government or private jobs, opened shops and began life afresh in the newly designed city. “During those years, we rarely saw private vehicles on the roads,” said Krishan Lal, an octogenarian who moved to Chandigarh in the 60s. “A bicycle was an essential item in every household. People did not ride it for a hobby. It was often the only means to commute to different parts of the city. During those years, the use of bicycles cut across all income brackets.”
After the 80s, as Maruti came into the market followed by other car brands, bicycle mobility in Chandigarh changed drastically. Today, cycles are used mainly by blue collar workers who are virtually lost in the heavy rush of traffic on Chandigarh’s roads.
The UT Administration did take up the challenge of popularising cycling in recent years. For instance, in 2006, the Chandigarh Industrial and Tourism Corporation (CITCO) stationed 10 or so bikes in a cycle shed on Sukhna Lake for public use on rent. But the project was scrapped a year later as it did not find any takers. The same project was revived in 2016, with the same results. Authorities blamed the failure partly on lack of interconnectivity, as the cyclists had to return to Sukhna Lake to return the bike after completing their trip.
Lack of planning
In terms of infrastructure, Chandigarh has what it takes to emerge as the bicycle city of India. It has a vast, planned network of roads; it is relatively small in size (area 144 square km), which means that distances are shorter and can be covered on bicycles, and its roads are covered by a vast canopy of trees, making cycling a pleasant experience. What is lacking is a comprehensive plan for promoting cycling as an alternative mode of transport. “What the administration does is merely symbolic, there is no sustained effort or planning to really promote cycling,” says Gurjusjit Singh, President, Chandigarh Cycling Club.
The administration renewed its efforts to expand the cycle tracks to the present 110 kms only in 2014. “It was at the instance of the Punjab and Haryana High Court that this was finally taken up, to fulfill the original vision of the Master Plan that envisaged Chandigarh as a cycling city,” said Navdeep Asija.
Also, cycling tracks are not present everywhere in the city. They are missing in heavy traffic areas like the Industrial Area and Tribune Chowk. Existing tracks are often poorly maintained, encroached upon, and badly lit. Planners have failed to install proper cycle stands at places like the parking area of the busy Elante Mall and in other newer parking places in the Sector 17 commercial district. Bicycles can be seen tied to electric poles or the nearest immovable object.
Promoting non-motorised modes of transportation has been on Chandigarh’s agenda ever since the city was declared a Smart City in May 2016. But so far nothing concrete has been done on the ground. Authorities, however, are looking to make amends.
“We have floated tenders for acquiring 5000 bicycles for public sharing,” said N P Sharma, General Manager, Chandigarh Smart City Limited. “These are to be stationed at over 500 points around the city’s busy areas such as the Bus Stand, Sector 17 Plaza, Punjab University, Sukhna Lake, and Rose Garden. We are awaiting response to the tenders.” The administration is also taking steps to extend the cycle tracks to 180 kilometres.
“Chandigarh will surely succeed in this endeavour,” said Vivek Atray, former IAS and present member of the Administrator’s Advisory Council. “There are many aspects to a smart city. The ecosystem has to be created. It is not only about infrastructure. A smart culture too has to be introduced gradually.”
On the other hand, in its quest for inclusion under the Smart City project, neighbouring Panchkula has been quick to adopt bicycle sharing with some success. “Panchkula has done very well to implement the shared cycling model,” added Atray. “I have seen people using these bikes for fitness purposes too. Chandigarh could also succeed in a similar way if it properly implements the plan.”
Interestingly, Panchkula does not have any cycle tracks demarcated along its roads. “Once the project was finalised, we implemented it within a period of four months,” said Municipal Commissioner Rajesh Jogpal.
The bicycle project could certainly help Panchkula attain Smart City status. The municipal corporation (MC) has roped in a private firm for this initiative, a startup that had already implemented such projects in Puri and Gwalior. “The Panchkula MC is cash rich and therefore, funds were not a problem,” said Jogpal. The MC, however, decided to start small and tried out the concept with 200 bicycles at 20 stations across the city. “At the outset, we wanted to see how the public would respond and then take it up from there,” said Jogpal.
To incentivise the public to use cycles, the MC used a multi-pronged approach:
- First, it acquired high-end bicycles to first fulfil the need for last mile connectivity in areas where the demand is high.
- Around 75% of Panchkula’s population lives around two roads that divide the city. The majority of bicycle stations were positioned around these roads.
- Thirdly, they initially offered free rides and initiated a referral programme. A rider referring a new user stood to get a free ride.
- Fourthly, they aggressively promoted the positive impact of using cycles on health.
Presently, a user can rent a cycle for Rs 5 for half an hour. The MC has come up with a smart card worth Rs 100, which can be swiped to get access to the cycles and also offers discounted monthly rates for usage, which makes a user eligible for 30 rides a month of 30 thirty minutes each. Smart cards are also available in other denominations ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 1000.
To prevent thefts, the cycles have been equipped with a GPS system and unique colour coding that makes them conspicuous. Any individual causing damage to the bicycle is liable for fines upto Rs 25,000. The MC has launched a mobile app, which users must download if they want to use the cycle facility. This app gives information about the bicycle stations and cycle availability. Jogpal says that so far 50,000 users have downloaded the app.
The MC has already placed work orders to lay out cycle tracks throughout the city. Meanwhile, work is underway to demarcate special side tracks for bicycle users on the roads. Looking at its initial success, the corporation plans to extend the project to areas that have so far not been covered. It is also looking to increase the number of bicycles. Significantly, the MC plans to monetise bicycle use in terms of carbon credit. The project has logged in 76,000 rides till November, translating into carbon savings of 4,20,285 kg!
“It was just an experiment and it clicked. What made it a success is the will and the ownership taken during its implementation,” said Jogpal. Chandigarh now needs to learn from Panchkula, rather than the other way around as it used to be in the past.