By Aziz Haider,
The world has undergone a seesaw change since the pandemic gave its first knockings at the beginning of 2020. Changes have been for the good and for the bad; how we conduct business and meetings, how corporations hire and fire and even what we eat, how we keep ourselves fit and how we commute – there has been distinguishable change in all aspects of life.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the mindsets of people to a large extent and has reshaped cities across the globe. Returning to the age-old days of bicycles is a common trend, with the big change being that the new-age bicycles are more comfortable, more tech-savvy and more efficient as machines. And the city planners in various cities are burning the night lamp to create road infrastructure and provide facilities for a burgeoning number of bicyclists that can be seen on the road.
Cities of both Europe and the USA have seen a great leap in bicycle usage. The local governments, through relocating their city budgets to create new infrastructure and facilities for the bicyclists, have ensured that the change remains to stay for long.
Informs Lauha Marianne Fried, who works as the Policy Director at Cycling Industries Europe: “A broader study across Europe released earlier this year and drawing on data from 106 cities with COVID-era cycling infrastructure installations found ridership increases between 11 and 48%, on average.”
Subir Ghosh, MD of United Cycle Company who supplies his bicycle brand Unirox to Europe, USA as well as within India, says: “Globally, post pandemic, there has been a huge interest as a mode of transport, as a mode of keeping fit, as an exercising equipment, to travel short distances while maintaining social distancing. This is the main reason why usage of bicycles has increased all over the world. Europe has been one of the largest users of bicycles all the time. It is the USA and India, in the urban areas especially, which have seen the greatest increase post pandemic. People in all these areas are going for their own vehicle, which is environment friendly; the gyms too are closed and cycling is giving them a chance of exercise and at the same time keeping them healthy and following the social distancing norms.”
Satarupa Sen, who is running a green commute initiative by the name Carryon.Bike from Norway, with an aim to bring the global cycling community under one umbrella, agrees that what Europe has seen during the pandemic is nothing short of a bicycle revolution. Says Satarupa: “Europe has always been conscious of promoting smart cities and the citizens are largely environment conscious. We all know how countries like the Netherlands have taken to bicycling for many years now. Taking into account the aspects of social distancing, fitness, saving time in high traffic cities- gives more reasons for people to adopt cycling.”
To cite an example, Helsinki – the capital of Finland – with its population of 630,000 has utilized its city infrastructure budgets to build 1,300 kilometers of cycle paths and the busiest route in the city currently racks up around 10,000 rides per day.
India too has seen a 300 to 400 times jump in bicycle sales, courtesy COVID, but this spurt in sales has gone largely unnoticed considering the enormity of its population. According to Onkar Singh, Chairman, Cycling Federation of India, the country witnessed a surge in market since the pandemic started. This was partly because the gyms and parks were closed and partly because of social distancing requirements. Says Singh: “For many months, India witnessed a surge of about 300 to 400% sale of high end cycles. That changed the whole scene of Indian bicycle industry.”
According to Onkar Singh, there was a time during pandemic when there was not a single high-end bicycle available in the country and people had to wait for 2 to 3 months for getting a bike and instead of discounts – which were common earlier – cycles were being sold for a premium.
One question that lingers in the mind of people like Singh is whether this trend for switching towards bicycles will sustain in India.
A company by the name Blue Green Planet LLP has taken the challenge of promoting and sustaining the cycle culture in India through a series of events and exhibitions, starting with the first exhibition viz. BikeXAsia, being held from November 12-14, 2021 at HITEX in Hyderabad. Informs S Ramesh, CEO of Blue Green Planet: “This will be an exhibition of its kind with focus not just on bringing to display the various brands available and help them provide platform for sales through enhanced dealership and retail network but will also attempt, through various conferences and seminars to be held on the sidelines, besides activities like Buyer Seller Meets, Awards, live shows, product launches and road shows, to create the desired sustained environment for enhanced bicycle usage in India. This will be possible through the three fold exercise: the consumers need to be educated about the benefits of bicycling; the manufacturers both in India and abroad need to create products that are enchanting for the Indian consumer; and, the governments need to create the necessary infrastructure for the safety of bicyclists.”
BikeXAsia is co-located with two other popular exhibitions, the SportExpo and the PHIC [Public Health and Infection Control] Expo, thus ensuring a good walk-in crowd to the three exhibitions.
The PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry [PHDCCI] which is the co-organizer for BikeXAsia has been foreseeing the emerging trend since sometime, according to its ADG – Naveen Seth, and had planned a series of cycling workshops, starting with Jaipur, Bangalore and Chandigarh. Naveen Seth informs that even the Government of India is taking this seriously and there have been series of meetings and discussions at the top level in the Niti Ayog. Apparently, a new policy is on the anvil soon.
As per information, AICMA [All India Cycle Manufacturers Association] too is thinking of making available technology for manufacturing/assembling high end cycles in India.
Onkar Singh is of the opinion that the cycle industry doesn’t need incentives to enhance sales. What is required is the incentive for safe riding and this will come from the various governments and municipal corporations of cities.
Says Singh: “If you have been to Copenhagen, which is the cycle city of the world, where 62% people use cycles, all road laws and regulations are made keeping bicycle riders in mind. There are different lanes, even a different red and green light for the cyclists.
I have been talking to several Governments across the country to have dedicated cycling lanes. Even if they make it, who is going to regulate it. Once they make such a lane, you will find motorcycles and rickshaws going there. The safety of a bicycle rider is not ensured.”
Singh gives examples of dedicated lanes in Dwarka in Delhi. Unregulated as they are, one can see bicycles and rickshaws running on those roads. “Once the safety of the rider is ensured, we will find an increasing number of bicyclists on the road.”
Health, fitness and saving time in high traffic cities – these are some of the benefits according to Satarupa Sen that accrue to someone who switches to bicycling. But what governments in countries like India don’t realize is that there are enormous benefits, even financial, for the governments themselves, if more and more people switch to bicycling.
As per information revealed by Lauha Marianne Fried of Cycling Industries Europe, the local government in Helsinki has witnessed a 3.6 euro gain for every 1 euro invested in bike lanes in Helsinki – the capital city of Finland.
According to Cycling Industries Europe report: “A study into the economic benefits of installing bike paths on key city arteries in Helsinki has found a €3.6 euro gain for every €1 invested in the capital city.
Some of the greatest returns on investment stem from the health benefits attributed to usage of the infrastructure, on which cycling’s modal share is said to represent 11% of city traffic.
In reaching the calculation the researchers took the base cost of the street redesign and maintenance costs for the study period and ran this against time savings on travel delivered and a set of pre-determined health benefit metrics, among other benefits to the city and its population of 630,000.
In total, the Northern European city has built 1,300 kilometers of cycle paths and the busiest route in the city currently racks up around 10,000 rides per day.
As a result, the study’s authors estimated somewhere between a $1 billion and $7 billion in health benefit to citizens of the featured cities.”
COVID has been a blessing in disguise in ushering this welcome change. It is now for the various governments and municipalities to act. With the reports coming out that the Government of India is keen on framing new laws and guidelines, India might as well silence the critics, some of whom think India has already lost the race by not being quick enough to act. Government may well use its Fit India slogan to usher in the bicycle revolution that India desperately needs.
Consequently Subir Ghosh and others are optimistic of brighter days ahead. Says he: Even if social distancing measures come to an end, people will grow a habit of keeping safe. They will realize that cycling gives them an environmentally friendly mode of transport, it is a non-polluting transport and it is a healthy exercise that one undertakes simultaneously with commuting.
S. Ramesh says local manufacturers are thinking of giving better bicycle choices to consumers. Problem till now was that there was no significant market for high end bicycles. Parents would purchase motor bikes and cars for their children but not bicycles, except for the very early stages when the children were not grown enough to drive a motor bike. Things are changing now. People are getting more health and fitness conscious. Options too are coming in plenty both through manufacturers using ‘Make in India’ theme to produce quality range and through import of high end bicycles into India. BikeXAsia aims to bridge that gap and give to the Indian consumers the multitude of options that are available, both in terms of Bicycles but also E-Bikes and accessories. Micro Mobility and Last Mile Delivery Solutions too are gaining trend as Green Mobility solutions.
Satarupa Sen gives the last word when she says: “E-bikes have made it a more acceptable mode of communication for many. Governments in different countries are beginning to appreciate the need to push e-bikes adoption. France plans to offer a 2500 euro grant to buy electric bicycles in exchange for old vehicles. Nordic countries have rolled out such subsidy policies already and others are not behind.
Such initiatives have seen e-bike sales skyrocketing in many regions of Europe. Norway has always taken a lead to incentivize the promotion of zero-emission vehicles. For example, Oslo gave 5,000 Norwegian kroner to 1,000 citizens to buy electric bicycles.
But while more people take to cycling, we must have more bike lanes keeping in mind the security hazards. This is something the Government bodies will need to consider. Better bike route maps with info will help different age groups to plan better for bike trips and destinations so the momentum and inclination towards bikes is not lost.”
(The writer is an independent analyst writing on trade and bilateral relations. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)