Bike sharing is good, but will big city residents risk cycling to their destinations?

Indian city roads witness a David-Goliath tussle everyday between cycles and motorised transport. And the latter still holds a big advantage. As more and more cities formally launch bike sharing programmes, will the commoner take to cycling in a big way, given the safety concerns?

It is a pretty linear argument as far traffic solutions go. The big bad car versus pedestrians and cyclists. Non-motorized transport (NMT) versus motorised private transport.

If we want to get out of this nightmare we call traffic jams and decongest the city, we need to get people out of their private vehicles and have them take to mass transit and non-motorised transport options i.e. walking and cycling, in a big way. Sounds pretty simple in theory, and this is expected to be the linchpin that will not only decide the which way urban mobility is headed, but also decide the survival of the our planet vis a vis our carbon footprint.

The reality of it, however, is worse than being stuck in one of Bangalore’s infamous traffic jams. One word sums the problem – safety. Getting on a bicycle or deciding to walk in any city in India is increasingly becoming akin to jumping off a cliff without a parachute.

In 2009, the World Health Organisation released its Global Status Report on Road SafetyIt says that 1.3 million people are killed every year around the world because of road accidents and more than half of those fatalities are made up of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. By the year 2030, road accidents will become the world’s fifth leading cause of death in the world. However, the safety of NMT users are yet to receive the kind of attention and dialogue that it should.

Theory vs practice

The inverted pyramid of urban mobility has meant that the most vulnerable on the roads i.e. pedestrians and cyclists are right at the bottom of the priority list. Most of the state-planned transit solutions are car-centric and don’t even prioritise mass transit. Yet policy standards dictate otherwise.

The Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India has a defined Service Level Benchmark for Urban Transport. According to it, cities with more than 50% of dedicated road network for NMT, less than 10% of encroachment of NMT roads by parking, and with more than 75% of NMT parking facilities at interchanges are at Level of Service 1. No city has been classified at this level yet. The National Urban Transport Policy does not even talk about NMT as a main mode of transport, but it considers such modes as a key tool for last mile connectivity. 

Even the Prime Minister’s National Action Plan on Climate Change under the National Mission for Sustainable Habitat, which has a sub-committee concentrating on urban transport, has listed eight principles for sustainable urban transport. Walking and Cycling are the top two in that list. Every DPR for any project under JNNURM requires NMT to be a part of it to be eligible for Central funding.

We aren’t short on number of bicycles either, to be at the bottom. The 2011 census lists that  83.8 million people or 43% of the Indian population own a bicycle. In comparison, 4.8 million or 2.5% of the population owns a four wheeler. 66.2 million or 32% of India owns neither. Cycle rickshaws are an integral part of urban transport in both large metros like Kolkata and Delhi and act as feeder services to the mass transit options; in Tier 2 cities like Patna, Bhubaneswar etc, they even act as main mode of public transport. 

Yet the modal share of NMT is non existent. Multiple surveys, like the Delhi Metro survey in 2011, the RITES survey in 2007 and 2008, the Wilbur Smith Associates Survey in 2008, show comparative data from the 1980s till after 2005 for six cities. NMT made up of about 40 to 60% of modal share of transport in the 1980s. Bangalore has seen the greatest dip where this number is less than 10% after 2005 from about 60% in the 1980s. Of the larger metros, Chennai has almost remained constant and even gone up by a couple of points after 2005.

So what is the reason for this?

The cyclist’s concerns

“Well, wherever there is improved infrastructure in the form of wider roads, you will find this is the case,” says Ranjit Gadgil of the advocacy group Parisar in Pune. The city now has the distinction of having more vehicles than its population. According to a recent media report in Financial ExpressPune has 36.27 lakh vehicles to its 35 lakh population, considered a first for any urban city.

Ranjit, who describes himself as a lifelong cyclist, uses it as a primary mode of transport. “I started cycling as a school boy in the early 80s and it was perfectly normal and acceptable and safe. But today as a cyclist, I am permanently at risk because my mode doesn’t stand a chance against the cars. Pune has about 5% modal share of the NMT and surprisingly, so does Mumbai. But we cannot count on people’s behaviour to change. Nobody runs down another on the road because of malafide intent. When you have a powerful vehicle versus a cycle, it isn’t even a contest. We need to work at safety from a policy level, and that begins at the local wards”

Pune is now the first city to have a Comprehensive Bicycle Plan that was approved by the City’s Municipal Council in 2017. Partly funded by the Ministry of Urban Development at the centre, the project with a time frame of five years has a separate department dedicated to it and will have a city-wide network of roads for cyclists and parking spaces on arterial roads. It also plans to incorporate traffic calming measures like speed breakers for sub-arterial roads. It has even roped in private players with 3.5 thousand dockless bicycles on its roads for a Public Bike Sharing (PBS) project.

Towards successful bike sharing in cities

With PBS becoming an important aspect of the Smart City project in various cities under the Mission, what are the measures taken to ensure safety by the implement authorities?

Mysore, which was the first city in India to have the PBS system introduced, did not have at grade safety solutions. It was at the behest of the World Research Institute that the city administration considered coming up with cycle lanes. There are no mandatory rules about helmets or rear view mirrors either.   

Bicycle docking stations in Mysuru.

N Murali Krishna, Special Officer, Directorate of Urban Land Transport, the nodal agency that implements the project said, “Vehicular density in Mysore is very low at about 12 lakh and it isn’t as frantic as Bangalore. Even the traffic police don’t need to get involved in manning these stretches. As for the helmets for cycling, there are issues around hygiene and safety of the equipment that we need to address, besides making cycling more appealing to the people. We have standardized the make of the bicycle itself – wheel specifications, handlebars etc to address safety issues. As of the last week of July, the number of rides docked had crossed 10,000.”

But the officials are clear that the parameters for Bangalore will be very different. DULT, which is the implementing agency for the PBS system in Bangalore as well, has planned a number of at grade safety measures. A total of 105 kilometres of cycling track is being planned across seven identified clusters, including MG Road, Brigade Road and Commercial Street besides HSR Layout, Jayanagar among others.  

“Besides traffic calming measures in sub arterial roads, we want to ensure that cyclists have the Right of Way. Therefore, we are doing a combination of dedicated and shared lanes for cycles. Dedicated lanes will be segregated from the traffic and aligned with the footpath at different levels, so that no form of motorised transport can access it either for parking or movement. It will be segregated from pedestrians as well. The idea is to make cycling more attractive to people. For that it needs to be safe. We haven’t insisted on the helmet rule in Bangalore either, because it will face the same problems as we face in Mysore” said Murali Krishna.

But these same measures were adopted by DULT even when it ran a pilot project in Jayanagar a few years ago. The Late Vijay Kumar, former MLA of Jayanagar had been a vocal critic of it. However the DULT officials quickly pointed out that the project in Jayanagar was not meant to provide a cycling lane. “With this project we are creating different levels for cyclists as an at grade solution.” says MuraliKrishna. 

Will policy thrust on NMT safety work?

Even as safety of the cyclists have are now being considered at policy level, what is the reality on the ground? Can we convince cyclists that it is safe, or does the push to NMT options finally become a classic case of the chicken and egg: What comes first — adoption or safety infrastructure?

Srikar Dattatreya, a Bangalore based cyclist, uses the two wheeler as his mode of transport around the city. Everyday, he jostles with large cars and unpredictable two-wheelers as he weaves around town. He faces the demons everyday. So while all of the policy push to make the roads safer for him is certainly welcomed, he also remains skeptical. “At the end of the day it is about how it translates on the ground. There is no point having a cycling lane on a sub arterial road only to have it turn into a parking lane. The ideas are great, but it’s the implementation that I am more interested in,” he says

Satnam Singh, a photographer based out of Hyderabad, uses cycling as his primary mode of exercise. ” People assume Bangalore has the worst traffic because it is always about the density. If you really want to understand unpredictable behaviour on the roads, you should try riding in my city. We have a joke in Hyderabad that you need to look both ways to cross a one way street in my city. So I either cycle early in the morning or late in the night. Even then it is a risk. As for policy push for safety, I will believe it when I see it in Hyderabad. ”

Bangalore recently got its first bicycle mayor (the third in the country after Nikita Lalwani of Vadodara and Arshel Akhter of Guwahati) in Satya Sankaran, who had this to say at a recent conference on travel options. “We have a right to the road as much as a man with a car and we have to assert it. If he honks at me, I also stare back to let him know that I won’t be intimidated.”

Whoever thought that a modest cycle, the preferred mode transport in country at one time, would emerge at the centre of a raging debate such as this. While nostalgia romanticizes those rows of cycles that once lined factories and large business establishments, those who use it today really do it at their risk. The urban poor continue to use it as mode of transport even as more affluent riders clearly enjoy the advantage in the fight for a spot on the priority measure. In this constant tussle between what should be and what is, the human life of a cyclist hangs by a thin thread as he weaves his way through the master we know as traffic.


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