Many problems, one humble solution, yet Indian cities continue to ignore that

Lessons learnt globally point to the many benefits of cycling -- whether in terms of health, reduced congestion or even greater equality. Yet, whether in Kolkata, Bangalore or Pune, a sustained thrust to promote cycling in our cities is clearly missing.

Co-authored by Dattatraya T Devare and Saurabh Ketkar

Imagine two people on cycles alongside each other riding down a road. One has a state-of-the-art bicycle, made out of carbon fibre with the best disc brakes and a customised seat. The other has a generic cycle made without any gears or fancy materials. When they both come to a stop, one thing is fairly certain, both of them will be sweating and will even smile at each other. If they are friends, they will stop for a chat and catch up over this fortuitous rendezvous. This scenario would be hardly likely if you were travelling on any other private vehicle.

On a cycle, your social class cannot protect you from the weather, the quality of the roads or the quality of the air you breathe. Equality is integral to cycling, and all cyclists are equal. Irrespective of the price of the cycle you own, you have to exert some physical effort to get from point A to B. You also occupy the same amount of space, do not disturb others or even cause any harm to the environment by polluting the air. 

There are even community benefits to cycling. You are more likely to bump into a friend in your neighbourhood on a cycle or while walking and stop to have a conversation with them. Even if you saw a friend in his car, there would be no space to stop and have a conversation, thereby reducing the vibrancy of your own neighbourhood. What is more, the cyclist will usually get healthier while riding a bike.

The cycle is truly the only egalitarian mode of transport in the world, the most civilized mode from all aspects: social, economic and political.

Cycling around the world

When Detroit lost its major economic source, auto manufacturing, to cheaper countries like Mexico, many neighbourhoods had become abandoned, with few residents in them. Jason Hall, a young man from one of these neighbourhoods decided to take a ride on his cycle with his best friend on a Monday night. Within a few months, he was joined by a few dozen other riders and today, there are thousands of people in Detroit who take part in these Monday night rides called Slow Roll Detroit. 

Everyone drives a car, but it can never evoke a community sentiment they way cycling can. Cycling has that capacity, to bring people together, irrespective of your social or financial status. 

The contrast between having a car centric approach and a cycle centric approach is best visualized when we look at China and the Netherlands, and how they both moved drastically in opposite directions in the second half of the century. 

China used to be a nation of cyclists. Everyday millions of people would roll out onto the streets of Beijing. It is believed that a cycle was a prerequisite for a man who wanted to get married, akin to having a house or a job in India. But from 1995 to 2005, China aggressively promoted private cars and transport and reduced or removed most of the cycling infrastructure present. The results were disastrous: Beijing became known as city with the worst pollution for a long time and the entire city was mired with gridlocks.

Netherlands, on the other hand, was in adulation of the automobile around the 50s and 60s, pegging it to be the transport of the future. Like every other post war economy, they invested millions and destroyed several neighbourhoods to accommodate the traffic flow. All of this led to a staggering number of fatalities on Dutch streets that peaked at around 3,300 in 1971. 

It was the fatalities of nearly 400 children that year that really shook people. Many activists started protests against the car, the most famous of which was Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child murder). The protest took on various forms, with cyclists blocking major city streets and also organizing days on which children and cyclists will have the road to themselves. 

The political class of Netherlands was approachable and also open to the views of the protestors. The police also helped the protestors carry out their protests. From the Stop de Kindermoord, sparked the genesis of First Only Real Dutch Cyclists’ Union, which went even further in their activism to demand more space for cyclists. Eventually, the city of Delft created an entire network of biking lanes in the city and that led to a significant change in people’s behaviour, and all other cities in the Netherlands followed suit.

Our cities turn a blind eye

In India today, there is no place for the cyclist. For many, growing up and cycling are synonymous; the freedom that cycles allowed children to explore the city was akin to giving them wings. But today, those wings have been brutally clipped. 

Murali Karthik, a cycling activist in Bengaluru recalls how integral cycling was to his growing years “I used to live near BEML gate, and I used to study in Army Public School on Kamaraj Road. I used to travel by bus, but one day, there was a cycle at home, and I just decided to ride to school, almost 9 km one way”. “That day changed my life and I kept cycling to and from school.”

Murali was one the finalists for the post of Cycling Mayor of Bengaluru,under an initiative taken up by NGOs from the Netherlands in collaboration with the Embassy of Netherlands to promote cycling across the world. “Instead of our focus being on GDP, we need to be more focussed on our HDI, the Human Development Index. Once we shift our focus to HDI, we will be able to grow sustainably,” he says. 

Today Murali is associated with many cycling groups with different agendas. He is extremely passionate about kids taking to cycling. But it has been difficult convincing parents. “They are worried about their children’s safety and there is nothing I can say to allay their fears,” says Murali.

At one event, a group of cyclists encouraged people to ride a cycle to work, and nearly 4400 people pledged to do so. But other problems resurfaced. Most offices do not have a shower facility to accommodate cyclists after they reach work.

Lack of political will

These are but minor problems if you look at the real and larger issue. There is absolutely no political will amongst our urban authorities to even think of the cyclists. Kolkata is a prime example of this apathy for cyclists. Since 2008, the local authorities have been banning cycling on certain streets by categorizing them as slow moving vehicles. This frenzy reached its peak in 2012, when a whopping 174 roads had banned cycling. After activism and agitation from cyclists, it has been reduced to 62 roads now. But these roads include central and arterial roads in Kolkata that cyclists need to rely on to move around in the city.

Bangalore and Pune are trying to include cycling in their urban planning but with limited results. The Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT), is part of the Urban Development Department of the Government of Karnataka and it has proposed 130 km of integrated cycling lanes and a docking-based bike sharing system across the city. The civic body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) has approved of the plan in principle, but is yet to allocate the necessary space for the lane and the bike docks. 

Petty politics from MLAs and BBMP corporators is overlooking the larger picture of improving urban mobility. Of the 270 proposed cycle hubs, work is in progress in only 20. MLA Uday Garudachar, in fact, sent men to destroy bollards placed for a cycle dock, complaining that the footpath was not wide enough, even as the BBMP council had approved the plan in the first place. 

Another case of stalled projects is in HSR layout which was started towards the end of 2016 and is still in limbo because of non-payment of bills. BBMP claims that 4-5 crores in bills was not paid by the DULT while the DULT claims that the funds initially given for the project were diverted outside of the scope of the cycling lane. The result is the same as before. Cyclists do not have a safe space to travel within the city, while the powers that be play their trivial games at the cost of the citizens’ welfare. 

Even in Pune, the ambitious bike sharing plan is dying a slow death. Four players had initially entered an agreement with the Pune Municipal Corporation. While the initial price was kept low at Rs. 10/hour, it saw a spike in people choosing cycles. But overall lack of demand made two players, Pedl by Zoomcar and Ofo, the Chinese bike sharing giant to pull out their services, reducing the number of cycles from 8000 to 6000. Only two players remain, Yulu and Bounce, with Yulu having the larger slice of the pie. 

Meanwhile, ridership has also reduced from 70% to 40% on each bike. They also increased the price to the range of Rs 30-50 an hour, making them unaffordable for most people. The only positive has been reduction in vandalism of these bikes by efficient law enforcement. A major concern of citizens is lack of safety and that infrastructure is inadequate to ride on city streets. 

The lessons learnt globally are crystal clear; in the age of the automobile, it is only cycling infrastructure that can save humans. In 1972, more than 3000 people had died in road accidents in the Netherlands. That number has reduced by nearly 80% in 2017. That is a significant drop in numbers, made possible mostly by a human-centred approach to town planning instead of a car centric approach. That has to be the overriding philosophy behind every decision made by any urban local body. 

One needs to be blind to deny the benefits of cycling: from bringing communities together and making them more vibrant, to being an eco-friendly and efficient mode of transport. They reduce congestion drastically and is also affordable for all classes of society. The benefits to health — especially in managing lifestyle diseases like diabetes and hypertension — are widely known. If only our urban authorities could see the potential!

[This is the concluding part in a five-part series on the issues plaguing city streets in India; read the complete series here.

About co-author Saurabh Ketkar: Saurabh Ketkar works for a start-up in Bengaluru, but has keen interest in urban planning and inclusive development. He worked as an intern at B-PAC. An avid cyclist and trekker, he believes that riding bicycles and using public transport are means to a happier urban life in India.]

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