Cycling will transform Hyderabad and create a happier city: Santhana Selvan, Bicycle Mayor

But how will he achieve that? In this exclusive interview, Hyderabad's new bicycle mayor shares his goals and plans for making his city India's most cycle-friendly destination.

For Santhana Selvan, an IT professional, cycling began as a part time hobby, just a few trips to nearby destinations to run errands. From those days to the beginning of April 2021, when he took over as the Bicycle Mayor of Hyderabad, it has been a long journey. One in which he has evolved from just another enthusiastic biker to one who feels deeply about the need to spread the culture and practice of cycling among a much larger section of people. 

The challenges in a city like Hyderabad, where the conditions are not particularly amenable, are vast. But in this exclusive interview, the new Bicycle Mayor sounds eager and determined to go the extra mile to make the city a cyclist-friendly one. Here is what he had to say about his new role and plans:

‘Bicycle Mayor’ — two words that arouse a lot of hope, and even some doubt. How do you personally see this role? What are the concrete short term and long term goals that you are moving forward with?

You are right. Bicycle Mayor is an interesting and a cool role to have. But, it does not stop there – it comes with a lot of responsibility. Bicycle Mayor is an honorary and voluntary role conferred by the BYCS, an Amsterdam based social enterprise. The incumbent is expected to play the role of a change maker in the city — interacting with different stakeholders in the city, including the government (policy makers), non-governmental entities (NGOs/Influencers), media and the public. Through such interactions, the Bicycle Mayor can act as a catalyst for promotion and adoption of cycling in the city.

My primary goal is to achieve the organizational goal of 50*30, which means that by the year 2030, at least 50% of every trip we make in Hyderabad should be by bicycle. My term, of course, will only be for 2-4 years, but we shall make substantial progress towards that at least.

In order to achieve that bigger goal, I have planned for two sub-goals:

One, increase awareness and community development — by visiting corporate offices, schools, colleges and promoting Streets for Cycling. COVID has posed a challenge for physical meetings but we shall start with webinars, speeches and videos etc. In addition, by forming communities in the places I visit, we can build cycling groups who will continuously inspire, through practice, many others to follow their example. This will lead to more communities cycling — we must have numerous cycling communities, in schools, colleges or in particular neighbourhoods and apartment societies etc., Hence, by the end of 4 years, there has to be hundreds of cycling communities in Hyderabad city in each and every pocket. When there are enough such communities, initiatives like Cycling 50*30 and adoption of cycling as a lifestyle choice will become possible.

Secondly, there has to be a policy and infrastructure push. For this, I would like to be in touch with the government and non-governmental agencies — to consult, influence and help impact cycling-related policy and infrastructure in the city.

Read more: More buses, better footpaths and three more wishes from a Hyderabad resident

Tell us a bit about your personal journey to this position — when exactly did you assume this role and how did it all come about?

I took up cycling in 2014, in Chennai, just to carry out some nearby errands with a simple gearless MTB bike. As days went by, I wanted to join a cycling group, where I could cycle along with other people. I found WCCG (We are Chennai Cycling Group), which is the largest cycling group in Chennai with about 18,000 members on Facebook. I started riding with them. 

I started to see the benefits of cycling very soon — waking up very early in the morning every day, at 4.45 AM, enjoying everyday sunshine, making new friends, enjoying some really good times with friends, which was a huge social factor. All of these were happiness boosters and actually improved overall health. 

Soon, I became one of the organizers of the WCCG and joined the ranks of the seven core members of the group, who strategized and engaged in cycling advocacy in the city.

Post that, a career move brought me to Hyderabad. I always liked Hyderabad city, I had lived here previously from 2002 to 2004, but now I noticed that cycling in Hyderabad was still at a nascent stage, with few people really cycling regularly. Wanting to do my bit, I created a community called “Happy Hyderabad” along with Dinesh Sale to make our society happier and encourage more people to participate in activities like cycling, jogging, swimming, environmental and heritage site cleanups etc. This community is still going strong, with thousands of members on FB, and we have every day activities to engage the members.

But while cycling had transformed me inside out, I wanted to spread this among a greater number of people, to the city at large. That is when I found BYCS, who could empower me to bring about this transformation. One year passed in various rounds of evaluation: a couple of rounds of interviews, project proposals, recommendations from major cycling communities and NGOs, and referrals for my work (relating to cycling promotion) in the past, before I was selected as the right person for this role. 

BYCS goals match perfectly with my personal goals as well. I took up this role on the 2nd of April 2021. This is an honorary role, in addition to my full-time job at Reckitt Benckiser as a Program Manager.

As a city, what kind of biking culture does Hyderabad have? Do you think some kind of push is needed to encourage people to cycle? What are your plans to promote the culture of cycling?

Hyderabad still sees people cycling predominantly for exercise, unfortunately. There are cyclists who ride in the morning from 5 am to 8 am as part of their fitness regime. After that, bicycle users you see on the road are mostly livelihood cyclists — newspaper and milk delivery personnel,security guards, odd job-workers etc; in other words, those who use the bicycle for their work. 

Hyderabad still sees people cycling mostly as a hobby or part of their fitness regime. Pic courtesy: Santhana Selvan

As per the modal share in the city, usage of personal vehicles like cars and two-wheelers for commuters has increased drastically over the past two decades — from 28% to 48%. The share of bus commuters on the other hand has fallen from 64% to 35%, while Metro share stands at just about 2%. There has been a concomitant increase in pollution, traffic congestion and health problems in the city in the last ten years. Now, one of the most effective solutions to all these problems of a developing global city would be an uptake in cycling.

The modal share of bicycles currently is negligible as I see it and we are almost in ground zero. A substantial push is needed and people need to be encouraged to take up cycling. A drastic mindset shift needs to be brought about towards cycling as the preferred mode of transportation. People need to change their perception that bicycles (for commute) are only for low income people; instead, it should be seen as something that can be adopted for the betterment of pollution, traffic congestion and individual health. In addition, the fitness cyclists also need to take out their bicycles for their local utility usages.

The first step towards the above — buy a bicycle if you don’t have one. Use it not just as a fitness tool, but for short commutes and running errands. Once you have a bike, use it at least for a couple of trips in a week. Or, if you are making five trips in a week, try to make at least one trip by a bicycle for that local need.

We are not saying that one has to give up cars or motorbikes entirely at this point. But for making a change, small steps are necessary. The larger transformation will come about gradually.

Speaking of infrastructure, Hyderabad’s facilities for pedestrians and non-motorists are not encouraging at all, as we have seen. As Bicycle Mayor, what is your plan to push for safer roads for cyclists?

You are right. NMT infrastructure in Hyderabad is not up to the mark, which Citizen Matters has been talking about a lot, in several articles. I would like to make petitions to the government to provide bicycle lanes, to respect cyclists and acknowledge their needs. On the other hand, there have to be awareness campaigns targeted at motorists and the general public for safer roads and spaces for cyclists.

Read more: What I face everyday as a pedestrian in Hyderabad

Have any measures been taken so far by the city administration to encourage cyclists?

GHMC and HBC (Hyderabad Bicycling Club) had set up two Bicycle Rental Centres in the city long back in Gachibowli and Necklace Road. A lot of youngsters take bicycles on rent and cycle around Hussain Sagar Lake. That was a good move and encouraged new cyclists for sure. 

Recently, with the Cycles4Change nationwide movement, Hyderabad GHMC has participated and demarcated a few Bicycle lanes in the city, which is good encouragement as well. But, unfortunately many of these bicycle lanes are used for parking of cars in many places, which reinforces the need for more awareness and sensitivity among motorists. 

This also raises another question: do we have enough bicyclists who will use these lanes? It is a chicken and egg problem. That is where people like me can play a role to get more cyclists on the road and generate more bicycle awareness.

For last mile connectivity, Hyderabad Metro Rail Ltd and Smartbike have collaborated to launch a Public Bicycle Sharing System (PBS) with bicycles stationed at the metro stations, but that is happening at only a few metro stations. It would be better if HMRL allows and makes arrangements for cyclists to carry their cycles in the metro (which is not allowed today) as that may draw many more to use their bikes for the last mile commute. 

Across India, a number of cities are now trying to promote cycling as a key mode of transport. So far, which are the cities that you would like Hyderabad to emulate in terms of progress made towards that? Any particular models that you feel have worked well and could be replicated in your city?

I wish we had a city in India to replicate, but that is what we — in individual capacity as well as in collaboration with stakeholders — are trying to create and wish to achieve: to make Hyderabad the most bicycle friendly city in India. We already have a network of Bicycle Mayors in India, so I will be collaborating with them to replicate any best practices in Hyderabad. 

But talking of cities to emulate, globally, we can look up to Copenhagen and Amsterdam. They are heaven for cyclists. Many decades back, Copenhagen had more accidents due to cars and they had a grand movement that pushed for adoption of cycling as the default daily mode of commute. Of course, that did not happen overnight and it has taken years for this transformation and that is what we want to replicate in our city, Hyderabad.

How empowered and hopeful do you feel about bringing Hyderabad to that point?

As I said, we are in Ground Zero right now. Point Zero. If I stand on the road for 30 minutes, I can only see five livelihood cyclists or low-income commuters, while I see hundreds of cars and thousands of two-wheelers within this timeframe (depends on the time of the day). There is a lot to be done. 

Bicycle Mayor is an honorary and voluntary role, but that does not give me power. But, it does give me a sort of face value in the community and it also helps me get my voice heard when I encounter any policy/decision maker. So, I am going to use that to achieve the short-term and long-term goals. That is the empowerment which comes with this role.

I am definitely hopeful and I will do my duties as per the plan in my term, and achieve whatever impact is possible for the betterment of the city within my tenure.

To reiterate my earlier message, cycling can transform the city — make it one with less traffic congestion, fewer traffic related accidents, lower carbon emissions, cleaner air and more healthy people in the city. Healthy people translate to a happy society and a happy Hyderabad!

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