Tata Motor’s wonder car, the Nano was launched recently in India and popular media touts it as the people’s car – as people’s transport. It remains a fact that this car will be unaffordable for a majority of people in India. This is not another Nano bashing piece but an article where I bring to notice the affordable “people’s transport” in Indian cities – bicycles – and why we must build infrastructure for promoting their use.
Bicycling is not new in India. It is commonplace to hear the older generation reminisce about how everyone had a bicycle – right from the high court judge to university students. Mobility on the bicycle did not pose great challenges and there was little danger posed by motor vehicles, as they were few in number. Importantly, it was not considered as below one’s position to use a cycle. India’s motor vehicle use has grown steeply since the 1980s and with a turn to neo-liberalism in India, markets have been flooded with various types of cars. Availability of cheap motorized two-wheelers such as motorbikes and scooters also resulted in a shift to motorized modes by the relatively poorer populace. Still, motorized modes of transport remain unaffordable to majority of Indians and this majority either walks, uses public transport or bicycles. To many, even public transport is unaffordable, which renders them completely non-motorized. These commuters have no other option but to walk or use bicycles, as the majority of people using are bound by economic constraints. Although bicycle use in Indian cities has been declining over the years due to hostile infrastructure, it remains high compared to international standards. In mega cities, bicycle use touches about 13% of trips. In smaller and medium cities, the share of trips on bicycle reaches up to 25-30%. Compare this with the 1% bicycle use in the UK capital London, or many US cities.
Bicycle is akin to a private car because of it being a private mode of travel that can provide door-to-door transport. However, there are numerous benefits of using bicycles over cars. Bicycles cost little; a large majority can afford them. Bicycles take up little space while on the street or while parked. Bicycles produce no pollution, are easy to maintain and move at a pace that is quick enough (about 14-18 km/hr), yet is a speed at which the rider can enjoy the surroundings. Bicycles treat every rider the same – everyone has to make similar effort to pedal his or her bicycle – therefore a bicycle does not discriminate rich from poor; riders are equals when on the streets. They also have health benefits and much more.
With a large part of the population using bicycles and with their numerous benefits, why don’t we see any prioritisation and encouragement for bicycle use? State policy in India has been skewed in favour of the wealthy car-owning minority than the silent captive majority. All new infrastructures that were built in Indian cities since decades were for the car. It did not make any provisions for other road users. This definitely went well with the interests of the car manufacturers and oil companies. Empirical evidence from several cities around the world suggests that cities cannot solve their traffic problems by building wider highways for cars. Urban highways lead to larger traffic jams because of a phenomenon known as ‘traffic induction’. This can be experienced in our mega cities today, with endless traffic jams and some of the worst air quality standards. Add to this a developing country with large income disparities – the haves and the have-nots, and one gets a society perfectly classified on the basis of wealth. Those who can afford cars are in them, with the air conditioner and the stereo on, and the ones who cannot afford them are out – either in over packed public transport buses or trains, sweating and getting a 360-degree massage; on bicycles or walking, risking life while on the street.
Transport planning can help improve the quality of life for everyone. Research has proven that dedicated bicycle infrastructure eases traffic congestion and reduces road accidents, while providing a non-polluting, affordable-by-all transportation system. Dedicated bicycle infrastructure comprises separate facilities for bicyclists including segregated non-motorized transport lanes, bicycle parking stands, signage, traffic signals for bicycles and much more. However, not all streets need to have segregated lanes; in the inner streets that are less motorized, with the help of traffic calming interventions like speed breakers and roundabouts, a low enough speed (20-30km/h) can be ensured for motor vehicles; then bicycles can be mixed in ordinary traffic. With lower speeds of all vehicles, the streets will become liveable – children will be able to play outside without fear of being run over and neighbourhoods can be peaceful again. Efforts are under way in several Indian cities to develop non-motorized transport inclusive cities. Projects are under way in New Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad, Surat, Nanded, Bangalore relating to building infrastructure for non-motorized transport. A 6 km bicycle lane has been built in New Delhi along a Bus Rapid Transit corridor in Chirag Delhi. Many cyclists are happy and say that they feel safe in the cycling facility, however they complain about two-wheelers and cars encroaching the cycling lane. Therefore, stricter enforcement and more public awareness about the rights of cyclists and non-motorized transport users is the key to ensuring appropriate use of bicycle lanes.
Famous quantum physicist Freeman Dyson said, “The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple.” It is time that we realize the great potential that the bicycle has to better everyone’s quality of life and start prioritising it!
Faizan Jawed, India