More power to pedals

By: | Published: November 1, 2015 12:09 AM

Despite a steady growth in the production of bicycles and a gentle push by the government and other parties concerned in its promotion—like the recent ‘car-free’ days—cycling as an alternative mode of urban transport hasn’t really taken off in India. So what ails the green commute?

LET’S FACE it. India is the second-largest bicycle-producing country in the world after China. This $1.5-billion industry produced nearly 15.5 million bicycles in 2012-13, that is, 10% of the total bicycles manufactured globally, and employed about 1 million people in the country. But despite the encouraging figures, cycling as an alternative mode of urban transport has not really taken off in India.

So what ails this clean, environment-friendly means of commute that also has the potential to improve a user’s overall fitness and thereby reduce healthcare costs? One of the primary concerns, say experts, is safety, or the lack of it. As per a report prepared by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) last year, a city like Delhi—which has the highest number of cyclists in the country—records an average of five road accident deaths per day. Four of these are of pedestrians and two-wheeler riders. Every week, two cyclists and one car rider dies in the national capital, the report revealed.

Another sore point is infrastructure. And it’s not as if big cities don’t have cycling lanes along major roads. But the state they are in prevents safer and higher use of bicycles for short commutes. “The number of people who have at least started talking about using non-motorised transport, or bicycles, as a means of short commute has surely been increasing. However, the big problem is the lack of space for cyclists,” says Gurgaon-based media professional Rajesh Kalra, who is also the founder of cycling group Pedal Yatris.

“Despite tall talks, very little work happens on the ground that takes care of a pedestrian or a cyclist from the town planning point of view. Even in places where they have built cycle tracks, they have been used for parking or are being encroached. Hotels, malls, etc, don’t allow cyclists to enter, and if they do, there is no safe place for them to park their bicycles,” adds Kalra.

Then there is the typical Indian mindset, that of bicycles being a poor man’s transport, which is a big deterrent. As per the Integrated Mobility Plan of the Gurgaon-Manesar Urban Complex, Gurgaon has only 20% usable footpath and not a single kilometre of dedicated bicycle track. This is, at a time, when a third of the population in the city either walks or cycles on a daily basis.

“The reason for this is that most of the people using bicycles for work belong to the lower-income strata of society and, therefore, their voices never go into the decision-making process. Also, cyclists are marginalised because they are seen as people who can’t even afford public transport. There is a perception problem here. In fact, hotels, clubs and shopping malls, among others, don’t even have places for parking of bicycles,” explains Amit Bhatt, director, transport, EMBARQ India, a think-tank working towards solving the problems of urban mobility.

Wheels of change

On September 22, Gurgaon joined the rest of the world in marking the first ‘car-free day’—aimed at drilling into people’s consciousness the need to care for the environment, the need to ditch cars and embrace sustainable transport. Later, the Gurgaon administration declared every Tuesday a car-free day and has since held four such days. Although some reports suggest the initiative is fizzling out, the fact remains that there has at least been a headstart.

Following in Gurgaon’s footsteps, the Delhi government also declared the stretch between Red Fort and India Gate ‘car-free’ on October 22. If not anything, the first ‘car-free’ day in the national capital led to a 60% drop in air pollution on the car-free stretch in comparison to the levels observed on a normal day, as per a report released by the CSE. The city will now observe its second ‘car-free’ day in Dwarka on November 22. The government is also planning to observe the 22nd of every month as a car-free day and work towards making Delhi congestion-free.

“Every long journey begins with the first step. These are those first steps. Raahgiri is another initiative, so is a challenge that has started in some cities called #Pedal2WorkChallenge in which a person rides to work and challenges a few more to take it up. The number has been growing rapidly. As I said, these are baby steps, but at least they are being taken now,” says Kalra of Pedal Yatris.

“Supporting ‘cycling’ is not only an expression of inclusiveness, but also of health and harmony with the environment. It needs to be part of every development plan of private townships and smart cities,” says Pratap Padode, founder-director of Smart Cities Council India that works for the promotion of development of smart cities. “Many citizen group initiatives like ‘Equal Streets’ in Mumbai and ‘Raahgiri’ are trying to influence a change in people’s mindsets and behaviour towards more sustainable modes of transport,” he adds.

The road ahead

Indian cities could learn a thing or two from their counterparts across the globe. Denmark’s Copenhagen, for instance, is considered the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. It’s known as the ‘city of cyclists’, where over 52% of the population uses a bike for daily commute. In the Netherlands, that number is 27%. “Back in the 1970s, Copenhagen was like any other Indian city like Gurgaon or Navi Mumbai, that is, designed for cars, but then due to some incidents/protests, the city decided to do away with car-oriented planning and instead focused on people-oriented schemes and the results are for us to see,” explains Bhatt of EMBARQ India.

“One of the key learning points for us is that if we design streets for cars, we will get cars on roads; but if we design our streets for bicycles, we will surely see a surge in the usage of bicycles. It’s the design choice that we have to make,” Bhatt adds.

It also doesn’t cost much to promote cycling. “Around 111 million households in India owned bicycles in 2011. A comparison with China indicates that almost every household in rural China owns a bicycle, as compared to less than 50% households in rural India. If we would have subsidised the total production of about 6.6 million cycles in 2012-13, which are primarily bought by the low-income population, by waiving 12% tax component, the burden on the exchequer would have been to the tune of only Rs 260 crore (about Rs 150 crore for the central government and Rs 110 crore for the state governments),” offers Padode of Smart Cities Council India.

Industry on a roll Hero Cycles, the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer, sold 5.39 lakh cycles in September, thus achieving the milestone of the highest monthly sales by any cycle company in India. Sprint and Jet, Hero Cycles’ marquee brands, also recorded their highest sales, thus making them the world’s top-selling cycle brands. The two brands have a combined sales of more than 1.5 million units per year.

While the bicycle manufacturer recently forayed into the European market, it also acquired Firefox Bikes in India and Avocet Sports in the UK.

Late in August, Murugappa group firm TI Cycles of India announced that it had acquired the brand licensing rights of Ridley Bikes Belgium for India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar for a period of 33 years. As per a company statement, the licensing rights would strengthen the TI Cycles’ market share in the premium bicycles division and would also establish Ridley, a leading bicycle brand in Europe, as one of the leading global brands in India.

Go green

Some benefits of cycling…

* A clean, environment-friendly means of transport
* No noise pollution
* Improves overall fitness and contributes to reducing healthcare costs
* Traffic jams not usually a concern
* Reduces the need for fossil fuels
* Indirect source of cost reduction for cities and countries
* Cuts carbon, air pollution and calories

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