June 3 is being celebrated as World Bicycle Day. The first two-wheeled non-motorized vehicle was invented 200 years ago and it was during the 1860’s that its design evolved to something similar that we call a bicycle.
The bicycle, even though non-motorized and seemingly a slow moving vehicle, is slowly becoming a solution to urban mobility problems, worldwide. For too long in its two century history, the bicycle was relegated as a cheap form of transportation that only the poor are compelled to use. This view has changed drastically in the last couple of decades in many western and developed countries, and more predominantly in the western European nations.
With technological advancements and innovations in materials like aluminium, carbon fibre and even titanium being used to manufacture bicycles; their weights have drastically reduced. Innovations like gears and derailleur have made cycling quite effortless while usage of disk brakes has made riding in all weather conditions much safer. Usage of these materials and items has allowed cyclists to ride faster and longer. But, on the other hand, these cycles are not at all cheap. The high end cycles being used by professional cyclists and other sportsmen nowadays can go up to several lakhs. Add to it the other cycling related equipment like safety helmet, cycling shoes, gloves, gel padded shorts, jerseys.
I have not yet mentioned the electronic equipments used to keep track of one’s speed, heart rate… and cycling is no more a cheap thing anymore.
The motive here is to state the advancements in cycling technology and not to deter anyone from taking up cycling by assuming it to be an expensive activity. The good thing about cycling is that cycles are available to cater to any income group. The highly advanced and expensive ‘machines’ are for the professionals.
Different people have different reasons for cycling. The poorer sections of the society are compelled to use their cycles to commute as they cannot afford other modes. For the better off, cycles have been used to explore their surroundings, used as a fitness and recreational activity, some go on longer multiple day touring and many take it up as a competitive sport.
Even though Guwahati has a growing population who have taken up cycling as a recreational activity, the numbers who use cycles by choice to commute are very few.
People will have to take up cycling to commute distances that they feel comfortable in and only this activity will go a long way in reducing carbon emissions, reduce traffic congestions, and reduce deaths due to traffic accidents. The consequent benefits will be an improvement in one’s health.
The most recurrent reason cited by most people for not commuting on cycles is that they are scared to ride in the city roads because there are no dedicated cycling lanes. The two main reasons cited by the authorities for not going ahead with cycling infrastructure is that the city roads are very narrow and there is no space to create cycling lanes and also because there are not too many people using cycles. This even though looks like the classic chicken or egg question it is more to do with the broader views about urban mobility concepts and India being a developing country.
Even though providing direct, effective and perfect solutions to all the above problems may not possible, I will attempt to give some suggestions.
The urban planners in most cities in India, and in fact in a lot of cities worldwide, are more concerned about moving vehicles rather than people. The roads are planned and constructed to move the most number of big and fast moving vehicles. In these roads vehicles that are considered slow moving are restricted or banned altogether even though these vehicles may be totally non-polluting and clean. The whole approach needs to change towards allowing people to regardless of the type, size or speed of the vehicle.
Creation of cycling lanes need not necessarily mean expanding existing roads. Demarcating lanes in existing roads can be done by providing alternative parking areas for cars. Another alternative is to create cycling zones in some parts of the city for some specific time of the day and for some specific days of the week. Some cities are experimenting with creating elevated cycling lanes, in fact a decision in this regard was recently taken in New Delhi.
While the Guwahati Smart City project incorporates developing cycling lanes on the banks of the river Brahmaputra, what needs to be kept in mind is that cycling lanes have been created in many big Indian cities. But most of these face similar problems – encroachment by street vendors, illegal parking by other motorized vehicles, bad construction quality and non contiguous in nature, thus totally hampering the cause of the cyclists.
On a smaller scale, organisations, both private and government, can declare one day in a month as car free day to cycle to work day. These organizations can create covered bicycle parking spaces with locking facilities for their employees and visitors. These steps will encourage more people to cycle to work. These same provisions can be made by educational institutes too. Employees or students who stay 2-5 kms away can be given some incentives to cycle to work.
India aspires to be upwardly mobile by aping some of the ‘developed world’ practices of owning fast, big and expensive private motorized vehicles. This aspiration has more to do with Hollywood and to an extent Bollywood’s soft power influence on people’s mind. Can you recall any big budget movie which shows bicycles being extensively used or preferred over other vehicles?
We need to understand that cycling is the cleanest form of transport and has become one of the most growing fitness activities in the world.
The government is not helping the cause of cycling as with an aim to increase the GDP growth rate, too much emphasis is given on production of motorized vehicles by giving the manufactures all kinds of sops. Even though the government has decided to gradually phase out motorized vehicles using fossil fuels with ones using only electricity, by 2035, the problem of urban congestion will not get solved. The transport departments issue permits to cars to generate revenue. The banks give out easy and cheaper loans to purchase vehicles. The government needs to change its vision and act accordingly.
All the above result in more motorized vehicles getting added everyday and choking the roads. To solve this problem, authorities mainly react by creating more roads or increasing the width of existing ones.
People talk about the existence of cycling lanes and excellent cycling infrastructure in many European cities. What actually needs to be understood is that these infrastructures did not come up overnight. The authorities and the people in those cities had to fight with each other and ward off the rich car lobby to create such infrastructure. The struggle went on for many decades before people understood the importance of developing cycling infrastructure.
The good thing for cities like ours is that we are still growing and we have examples of those cities before us to earn from and implement them here before we too become too big to change.
Apart from that, another aspect that needs to be understood and accepted as that construction of any kind of infrastructure or utility for public consumption needs government intervention, or in other words need to be created by the government. And for government policy interventions, there is always a requirement of critical mass support. If there are only a few people using any kind of infrastructure, why would the government create it? Cycling infrastructure is required but for that to happen we need to be more in numbers.
On April 12, a resolution was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly to declare June 3 as World Bicycle Day. This UN resolution was an acknowledgement of the contribution of cycling to the sustainable development goals.
I would request everyone to celebrate the day by either using their cycles for commuting or walk if they don’t have one. Let us all try to make this a car free day.