In recent times, one of the lasting representations of Kolkata in popular culture lies in an iconic scene from the film Piku, where Bhashkor Banerjee, played by Amitabh Bachchan, is seen riding a bicycle around familiar haunts, with an air of euphoria and freedom. Ironically, in spite of the humble bicycle being a symbol of nostalgia and heritage, Kolkata is also the only city in India to have widespread restrictions on cycling. Cycling used to be banned in 178 roads earlier. Presently, the bicycle ban is in place in 62 arterial roads of the city. Despite this, the city records 1.68 million cyclists and 2.5 million cycle trips in a day. While aggravation of road congestion and safety hazards for pedestrians and cyclists are cited as official reasons by the Kolkata Police for the imposition of this blanket ban, the arguments do not hold water upon closer inspection of ground data.
Why is the Kolkata bicycle ban bad?
RTI responses and data on road traffic accidents released by the Traffic Department show that cyclist deaths have remained constant between 2008 and 2020. Only 6% of total deaths by road traffic accidents are that of cyclists. Therefore, restrictions on cycles have had no impact on the safety of cyclists and pedestrians on Kolkata’s streets.
Prosecution data in traffic rules violation cases also debunks the claim of cycles causing traffic congestions. In fact, since motor vehicles are found to cause maximum road traffic interruptions, it would make more sense to impose restrictions on them. Vehicular count surveys conducted by independent researchers in peak traffic hours in major roads of the city show that cycles form only 7% of the total transport share, as opposed to 69% for cars, taxis and motorcycles.
Although the transport department clubs cycling under the broad category of slow-moving vehicles, speed mapping exercises under the same research as above indicate that the speed of a cycle is approximately 14 km/hr, which is the same as that of motorcycles and more than that of cars and buses. Moreover, the average speed of traffic in Kolkata ranges from 10-18 km/hr, which can easily be matched by cycles. The average trip length of 3 km can be covered within 14 minutes on a bicycle, equivalent to a car. Small road space and short distance travel in the city makes bicycles more suitable for commuting.
The need for promoting non-motorised transport in Kolkata is evident from the recorded levels of vehicular pollution in the city. Cars contribute to 20-25% of air pollution, which has worsened with the easing of lockdown restrictions in the city with a five-fold jump in PM 2.5 levels. A shift to sustainable urban mobility networks is therefore the need of the hour.
These conversations become more relevant in the post-pandemic context, when zero emission delivery has become the buzzword among corporate houses like Zomato, who are encouraging delivery executives to use bicycles. Several firms in the Newtown area have been promoting the use of cycles and e-rickshaws among their employees, as the city adapts to the new normal.
The informal economy of the city greatly depends on cargo cyclists. A lot of policy attention and state funding in recent times seems to have been devoted to the expansion of metro routes in the city. Although cycles cannot compete with the metro or provide a feasible alternative to it in terms of long distance travel, it can be utilised as a feeder service that enhances connectivity and access to the metro for citizens. Although the Kolkata Police spokesperson has dismissed the idea of building dedicated cycle lanes as ‘unrealistic’ multiple times, mobilisation and negotiation by civil society groups continue.
Advocacy campaigns against the Kolkata bicycle ban
The SwitchON Foundation is one such organisation, which adopts a campaign-oriented approach backed by data-driven advocacy to push for removal of restrictions and investment in safe and efficient cycling infrastructure in the city.
In conversation with Shreya Karmakar, project manager and researcher at SwitchON, it emerges that the agenda of the police does not include prioritising non-motorised transportation over automobiles. As Shreya points out, this attitude fuels their reluctance to convert parking spaces and bus stops into dedicated cycling lanes, in spite of demonstrated benefits in terms of reducing congestion, pollution, and fatal road accidents. “In our negotiations with the authorities, we try to put forward examples of cities like New York and Berlin, and even Bangalore and Delhi closer home, who have adopted a model of pricing parking spaces as a disincentive for motorised transport,” she says.
The recent #BringBackCycles campaign seeks to bring all stakeholders — citizen groups, activists and experts, transport authorities and administration — on a common platform to formulate fresh demands and push for their implementation. A larger collective that will integrate other modes of commute in the form of a sustainable mobility network, in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, is in the nascent stages of ideation.
Who need cycles?
Some positive developments conducive to cycling in the city have been noted in the recent past. In the light of lockdown restrictions imposed on public transport owing to the pandemic in 2020, the cycling ban was effectively overturned in most routes. The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority has in fact proposed a 120-km dedicated cycle lane in the city covering 14 major roads in a draft cycle mobility masterplan, but it is yet to receive the necessary approvals from the Kolkata Police.
Although the Newtown Rajarhat area has dedicated cycling corridors, ground reports suggest that they are not being used adequately, and are being occupied by street vendors and parked cars. This is primarily due to a lack of inclusive street design with dedicated spaces for pedestrians and street vendors and little awareness around the pilot project for bicyclists.
While private players have entered the field by starting app-based cycle renting services in these parts of the city, they only benefit the elite socio-economic strata of society. This move towards commercialisation further alienates the working class. For instance, while a fitness enthusiast or an IT professional can benefit from renting a cycle for an hour, the same service is inaccessible for a newspaper vendor who does not have access to technology or capital.
The gendered aspect of cycling in Kolkata also merits attention. Political campaigns and policies are often seen to promote cycling among women, especially girl students. Even as such measures improve female enrolment in secondary schools, the most prominent users of bicycles as a mode of commute are working class women, especially those from suburban districts working as domestic workers in the city. Kolkata lacks a structured policy framework for non-motorised transport in general and cycles in particular, unlike other cities like Bangalore and Chandigarh.
The way forward
According to the 2011 Census, cycling is the third most preferred choice of commute to work in Kolkata, after walking and public transport. A perception survey conducted by SwitchON among 493 commuters found 95.4% of citizens against the ban on cycles, and 82% in favour of setting up cycle lanes. Despite restrictions, public demand for cycling has been rising due to its benefits, both in terms of mobility and health.
To realise the economic benefits of cycling, they must be made more affordable for low income households. While free distribution of cycles to high school students under the Sabuj Sathi scheme by the West Bengal government is a welcome move, the GST rate on bicycles should be brought down from the current 12% to the lowest slab of 5%. Tax and salary concessions for professions promoting cycling to work could also be beneficial.
Cycles represent an alternative path to public mobility infrastructure that is more accessible for the marginalised, evident from the fact that half of Kolkata’s cyclists are from the working class. Cycling restrictions, therefore, have a significant impact on their lives and livelihoods. In order to make the city more liveable, lifting restrictions on cycling and taking adequate steps to building safe infrastructure is crucial. To this end, the existing legislative framework must be amended to incorporate a robust cycling policy.
Further, congestion pricing and parking reforms can be useful methods for disincentivizing car use. Transformative action in favour of sustainable and accessible green mobility infrastructure holds the power to significantly improve urban lives.
[Note: The author would like to acknowledge the support provided by People’s Resource Centre (PRC) in the reporting for the article.]