A growing number of Indians are taking to cycling for recreation and fitness purposes. And taking a cue from this are entrepreneurs, government officials and private players who are going full steam ahead for the adoption of a cycling culture in the country.
Earlier this month, as I went out for an early-morning stroll, I saw a group of cycling enthusiasts pedaling their way through the city. The group, consisting of 12-14 riders, whizzed through the streets of south Delhi, all geared up on their high-end bicycles. None of them were riding to work, unlike some of their fathers or grandfathers. In fact, cycling is a leisure activity for them, meaning fitness for some or a stress-buster for others. “For me, it’s like taking a break from my daily 10-7 routine. Our group meets here on weekends and rides across the city,” 33-year-old management professional Rajesh Khurana said, adding, “Cycling keeps me fit and is a good break from my job where I am indoors all the time,” as he hopped on to his bicycle to move to the next pit stop. Admittedly, a bicycle can no longer be a means of transport for us, given the long distances to workplaces and merciless traffic on city roads. Even the poorest will use public transport to commute in cities and the slightly better off will invest in a motorised two-wheeler. However, it’s not time to say goodbye to the modest cycle just yet. It has potential as a fitness tool, as a means of eco-friendly transport for short distances or just as a leisure activity.
It’s a trend that’s being mirrored the world over. Take, for instance, the Netherlands. Called the ‘cycling paradise of the world’, the country’s almost entire population uses bicycles on a daily basis. Then there is Japan, where ministers and bureaucrats commute to work on bicycles. In Germany, it’s quite a common sight to see adults, children and even senior citizens riding bikes. If we talk about India, even though the scenario is changing, we are still a long way behind our global peers in cycle adoption. But there are many young entrepreneurs, as well as government initiatives and public-private partnerships that are paving the way for the adoption of a “cycling culture” in the country. The demographics also augur well for the adoption of a cycling culture in India. The 2011 Census data, released in 2016, shows around 41% of India’s population to be below 20 years of age, a number that is expected to be above 50% by 2020.
It’s a two-way process for cycling to become a part of our day-to-day lives, with both people and the government playing equally important roles. One part of the country that is leaps and bounds ahead in cycle adoption is south India. Mysuru, a city in Karnataka, with an urban population of about 12 lakh, saw the launch of a much-awaited public bicycle sharing (PBS) project in June this year. Christened ‘Trin Trin’, the project allows the general public to borrow bicycles from any of the 48 docking stations set up across the city and return them to another one nearest to their destination. Students are among the major beneficiaries of the service. Instead of waiting for buses and spending on autos, students take these cycles to school and college. In fact, Mysuru is the first city in the country to come up with such an initiative. The programme was conceived by the Mysuru City Corporation (MCC) and implemented by the Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT). “There’s been a good response so far. People are slowly joining in. As of now, we have about 6,000 registered users,” says Asha Kerakatty, spokesperson, Green Wheel Rides, a firm working in collaboration with the DULT and MCC for Trin Trin. So how does this facility work? You simply need to go to one of the six registration centres in the city with an identity proof and get a swipe card for Rs 350 a month. And if you want to continue, you can top it with Rs 50 next month.
Public bicycle sharing projects are common in countries such as the US, China, the Netherlands and the UK. However, the ambit of such a system is huge in these nations and India has a lot of catching up to do. The system goes well for a city like Mysuru, which has wide roads for cycles to ply on with ease. “Unlike Bengaluru, where roads are full of cars, Mysuru is much better. The infrastructure is convenient for the implementation of such a system,” says Kerakatty. “The government is also planning to come up with dedicated cycling corridors to ensure the safety of riders. If the safety issue is properly dealt with, we would see more people using the system.” The overall project cost, including initial capital cost and operational cost, is `20 crore for six years. Kerakatty praises the role of the state government and the MCC for this initiative. “They have been very supportive. The chief minister of Karnataka himself inaugurated the programme. The MCC, too, has played its role when it comes to identifying sites for docking stations, clearances and other such formalities,” she says.
Taking a leaf from its neighbour, the Maharashtra government recently approved the civic body’s proposal to develop a cycling track in Mumbai. The 39-km-long and 10-m-wide track, called ‘Green Wheels Along Blue Lines’, will be built on an open space created by removing 15,000 encroachments along the Tansa pipeline—stretching from the eastern suburb of Mulund to Wadala in Mumbai city. Expected to cost Rs 300 crore, this would be the largest infrastructure project for any non-motorised transportation system the city has ever seen. Such experiments aren’t happening for the first time in the country. A lot of them have come to the forefront because of efforts from several non-governmental and community-based organisations. Citizens for Sustainability (CiFOS), a citizen group working on transforming neighbourhoods for sustainability and better quality of life, in Bengaluru is one such example. What started with a simple ‘cycle day’ in certain parts of the city has metamorphosed into a huge movement. “In one of our non-motorist meetings at the DULT, we decided to join hands with other partners and cycling enthusiasts, and created the Bengaluru Coalition of Open Streets (BCOS). We had our first cycle day in Cubbon Park subsequently, which was attended by 4,000 people,” says Satya Sankaran, member, CiFOS.
The major problem, however, remains initiative from the common public. “From Cubbon Park, we went to Indiranagar, Koramangala… But then, it just became a touring circus. People were enjoying, but weren’t taking responsibility for it,” says Sankaran. “It was an inflection point for us. Every community wanted to have a cycle day in their neighbourhood. So we told them to form an RWA or community group and come to us. We would provide them with the expertise of conducting such an event, marketing partners, media partners, etc. But they would have to organise it themselves.” In the process, Sankaran and his team were able to instill the need to take up responsibility among the citizens of Bengaluru to a certain extent. This has resulted in a number of the city’s denizens cycling to work. Some even travel to longer distances on bicycles. The commuters now wear a smile on their faces, not exhaustion and frustration.
Capital embraces cycling
More than 5,000 participants zipping through the streets of New Delhi on an early Sunday morning isn’t a sight Delhiites are used to. However, on November 5, pro-cyclists, enthusiasts, professionals and supporters came out in huge numbers to participate in the Saksham Pedal Delhi cyclothon, a first-of-its-kind event at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. “The event was a huge success. We had expected a decent turnout, but had never expected it to be this big,” Onkar Singh, secretary general, Cycling Federation of India (CFI), says. Organised by Petroleum Conservation Research Association (PCRA) under the aegis of the ministry of petroleum and natural gas, the event had four categories: elite cycling (50/30 km), amateur ride (30 km), open ride (10 km) and green ride (5 km), and drew inspiration from a segment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio programme Mann Ki Baat, as per PCRA executive director Alok Tripathi. Such was the enthusiasm among the people that a 150-member team of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) came from Alwar, Rajasthan, to participate. “The event was very good and organised very well,” said one member of the team. “Such rallies of short distances should be conducted across cities and districts. They help generate awareness among people. We would like to participate in more such rallies.”
However, class X student Piyush Kumar, who attended the event, summed up the need for such events and their potential to generate awareness best. “Petrol and diesel are non-renewable resources. We need to move away from them. Even if we can’t use cycles to commute in cities like Delhi, we can at least cycle to smaller distances… to shops and other places near our house,” he suggested.
Need of the hour
Urban city roads in India are synonymous with traffic jams, pollutant-emanating vehicles and blaring horns. New Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) are enveloped in smog as you read this. The Delhi government floated the odd-even scheme, but then retracted it after the National Green Tribunal questioned its rationale. Speaking about the issue, Pankaj Munjal, chairman and managing director, Hero Cycles, says, “The road rationing scheme of odd-even might work as a temporary solution, but a more lasting solution to the grave problem of pollution needs to be implemented. Eco-friendly modes of transport have to be promoted and the government needs to be innovative in facilitating and incentivising this besides creating infrastructure. Dedicated cycling tracks are a must now. Cycling comes with a host of health benefits also. In the Indian context, cycles can solve the problem of parking as well.” Munjal is right. With the air quality index deteriorating with each passing day, cycling as a mode of transportation becomes all the more relevant. Also, people living in metropolitan cities are used to traffic snarls and long queues of cars. Tripathi of PCRA directly correlates cycling initiatives with tackling the problem of traffic congestion. “If we consider bigger cities, an idea like this would definitely help tackle the issue of traffic congestion and also help in fuel conservation,” he says. Tripathi, however, considers lack of advocacy and policy intervention as twin challenges in promoting cycling and related events. “Lack of infrastructure shouldn’t stop us from doing advocacy. In fact, advocacy leads to more awareness,” he says. “We all know about marathons, but no one knows of cyclothons. Our objective is to create an event that becomes visible and people start planning in advance for it.”
Concerted efforts to make cycling the go-to choice for people are well on their way. Punjab, the country’s leading state in cycle manufacturing, has set aside almost 300 acres on the outskirts of Ludhiana for setting up a “cycle valley”, a centralised facility for manufacturing bicycles. The plan has garnered a good response from corporates. Media reports suggest that Hero Cycles’ Munjal has proposed to chief minister Amarinder Singh an investment that would double the number of people working directly or indirectly in the domestic cycle market. Outlining an ambitious plan requiring 100 acres, Munjal is reportedly ready to invest Rs 400 crore in Sahnewal town, the proposed location of the cycle valley.
These small efforts can lead to big changes. As per Sankaran of Citizens for Sustainability, around one lakh cyclists are expected to hit the roads in India in the next five years. The reasons behind this are awareness and a growing fascination towards cycling, explains Singh of Cycling Federation of India. “Things are changing. People no longer look at cycling only as a competitive sport. They like to cycle,” says Singh. “We are trying to push people into cycling not just as a mode of transport, but as a means to a better lifestyle. Families, especially affluent ones, are now realising the need to cycle, as they want to break free from stress.”
Civic amenities and public infrastructure, however, need a major leg-up for such ambitious plans to fall in place. Incidents in the past show the laxity of civic organisations in the upkeep and maintenance of infrastructure. In 2011, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the city’s nodal infrastructure development agency, created a 13-km network of tracks looping around the Bandra Kurla Complex, a business district in the centre of the city. However, the tracks, which cost a whopping Rs 6.5 crore, were hardly used. It just took a few months for the paint to fade and the signboards to rust. Some of the space was eaten up for parking. In 2014, the MMRDA washed its hands of the project and declared it a failure. Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah announced in his recent budget that Bengaluru will emulate Mysuru in introducing ‘cycles for hire’. But the question that arises is how cyclist-friendly is the city’s infrastructure? Apart from small stretches of cycling lanes in few parts of the city, a 45-km cycling track in Jayanagar (which covered major roads) was demarcated in 2012. The Rs 2.5-crore project planned as a pilot by the DULT, however, turned out to be a big flop a few months down the line.
Lack of enforcement, education and awareness among citizens were responsible for the scheme’s failure, stresses HR Murali of Namma Nimma Cycle Foundation, a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit organisation of cycling enthusiasts. Murali, along with members and volunteers of the foundation, went around schools and colleges, requesting students to utilise the newly-created cycling lanes. “The DULT provided us Rs 1.5 lakh to publicise the scheme and we mobilised an additional Rs 1 lakh,” he says. “Much more needs to be done by the government if the concept has to reach more and more people. In the absence of any understanding, most of them thought the space earmarked was for parking.” Murali even criticises the police for its inability to implement the scheme. The DULT is now implementing another pilot scheme at HSR Layout, which is set to cost Rs 18.5 crore for a 22-km cycling lane network. CFI’s Singh also laments poor infrastructure and lack of civic sense among citizens. “There are such (cycling) tracks, but people need to follow them. They ride their bikes, scooters, even cars to evade jams. The police, too, need to pull up their socks. They should take such offenders to task,” he says. Singh even bats for a separate set of laws for cycling. Drawing comparisons with other nations, he says, “Look at Copenhagen. Almost 62% of its population cycles. They have laws for cyclists. The stopping line of cars is behind the one meant for cyclists. So at a red light, cars have to stop 50 m behind cycles. We need to form such rules.”
Singh is, however, hopeful for the future. “We have started an initiative with various state governments to make dedicated cycling tracks. Wherever new townships are coming, we write to the government… It has happened in New Raipur, Noida and Dwarka in Delhi. The culture needs to develop,” he says. “If the government sees so many people cycling, it will be forced to formulate laws and implement them.” Another long-standing hurdle that cycling needs to overcome is its perception as a ‘poor man’s transport’. “Cycling has always been considered a poor man’s transport. We need to change that, and it’s changing now. Delhi has about 17,000 cyclists and most of them don’t come from the poor strata of society. We need to facilitate that,” says PCRA’s Tripathi. Clearly, we need to move forward one pedal at a time.