The humble cycle – ride it and you have arrived!


While many developed countries are encouraging the use of bicycles, cycling is still considered a poor man’s vehicle in India. But this trend is set to change, says Shoma A. Chatterji, citing the nascent pro-cycling movements in a few Indian metros including Kolkota, which had become infamous last year for banning cycles on city roads.

The bicycle as a form of nonmotorised, inclusive transport is one of the most environmentfriendly vehicles in the modern world. It supports the greening of the environment and cuts across the rural and urban worlds. It also cuts across social and economic classes and is a democratic way of mobility in cities, towns and villages. It does not distinguish between age, sex and background. Gradually, the man on the street has realised its significance in the preservation of the environment, preservation of one’s own fitness and reducing the level of fuel emission from cars, buses, and so on. It is also cheap on the pocket if one chooses to buy an ordinary bicycle. It can also become a fashion statement for people who love to spend on expensive bicycles.

Bicycling evolved into a revolution in Kolkata when the Kolkata traffic police banned the use of cycles on roads and streets. On 29 May 2013, through a gazette notification, the traffic police passed an order banning cycles, hand carts, pull carts and tri-cycles from 174 major and minor streets in the city. The order was in violation of the National Urban Transport policy of 2006 that encourages non-motorised forms of transport. Millions of poor and working class people in Kolkata are dependent on this transport commute within the city.

“Bicycles and non-motorised transport are socially inclusive, directly support livelihoods, are inexpensive, take much less space, are good for the environment and health, and are least likely to cause jams and accidents”, the petition underscored. A group of environmental activists in the city had already begun a revolution in bicycling in the city. In September 2013, 500 people – members, supporters, and the public – came out on the streets to urge the Kolkata police to lift the blanket ban in 174 thoroughfares and initiate a dialogue to develop new infrastructure, and steps to support non-motorised transport. This campaign was initiated by SwitchON and supported by Ride 2 Breathe, Public Relations Society of India, PUBLIC, Greenpeace, WWFIndia, and South Asian Forum for Environment.

Vinay Jaju, an active co-founder of SwitchON says, “For a large number of people in the city, cycling is indispensable – from minor traders and suppliers to carpenters and masons, from the milk man and newspaper vendor to office clerks and courier delivery boys, the city depends on it. Nearly 2.5 million cycle trips are made every day! Such a ban is thus socially non-inclusive, inequitable and environmentally hazardous, and is a suicide note for our beautiful city of joy. Hundreds will be forced to convert to motorised transport and push to the brink the over stretched infrastructure of the city.” On 2 October 2013, thousands of people from all walks of life came out on the streets of Kolkata in support of Chakra Satyagraha. In an artistic representation of the ban, the activists showed the transformation of Gandhi ji ke teen bandar (the 3 monkeys of Gandhi ji) – people with feet, hands and mouths tied – symbolising loss of mobility due to the ban on non-motorised transport, subsequent loss of livelihood and ability to feed themselves and their family.

The movement began in April 2009, when over 60 cyclists rode from Victoria Memorial to the maidan to demonstrate to people that cycle as a mode of transport was sustainable. This was backed by a theatre performance by rural artistes to highlight the plight of the Earth due to unsustainable practices and insatiable consumption patterns. This was organised by Vivekananda Shakti Kendra and Kolkata Cycling Club, supported by Earth Day Network, Public Relations Network of Indian, and Environment Press.

It is ironical that when the world is on an aggressive and charged movement to encourage non-motorised transport such as cycling, Kolkata had decided to favour motorised transport in an already polluted environment. The rest of the world, especially people in European and Scandinavian countries believe that cycling is very good, both as a fitness regime and an easy mode of transport that does not raise emission levels. Amsterdam for instance, has 880,000 bicycles for a total population of 800,000. Most cities in Germany, like many other countries in Europe, have segregated their roads including highways, with separate slopes for cyclists, zeroing the possibility of conflict with motorised transport.

The United States Bicycle Route System helps educate travellers, increases awareness and builds appreciation of the natural, cultural, historic and environmental resources of the nation. In Denmark, the tradition of using cycles by people from across social classes is very strong. Most Danes associate the bicycle with positive values like freedom and health and today, they consider cycling as a symbol of positive energy.

According to B.R. Rohith, an environment journalist, Bangalore got its first cycle track project on public roads in September 2012. Tracks were developed along 22 roads in Jayanagar, with the Department of Urban Land Transport (DULT) investing ` 2.5 crore. Seventeen months on, the tracks are of little use for cyclists as they have been taken over for vehicle parking. R. Visharada, a cyclist, says the tracks run on to bus bays too, which is dangerous. “If the project was implemented properly, it could’ve been of great help to many schoolchildren in the area,” he adds. According to H.R. Murali of Ride A Cycle Foundation, who was instrumental in pushing for the project, lack of a single agency to deal with such a project is the major problem. “Right now, DULT does the planning, BBMP implements the work and traffic cops enforce the project on the ground. When there is little coordination between these agencies and in the absence of leadership to oversee them, projects like cycle tracks end up in limbo”, he adds.

Rohith adds, “In March 2013, BBMP initiated another cycling track project in Madiwala area, along Hosur Road, with an investment of ` 3.6 crore. However, no concrete action has been taken in this regard so far. While there are over 47 lakh vehicles in Bangalore, the share of non-motorised vehicles like bicycles, tongas and bullock carts is eight percent. A rough estimate says there could be around two lakh bicycles in the city.”

A cycle rally organised to inaugurate cycling tracks in Diu on August 4 this year demonstrated overwhelming participation by both tourists as well as the local population. The rally saw the active participation of more than 300 cycling enthusiasts, who had gathered to promote green mobility, sustainable living, and was also a boost to tourism in the island of Diu in the presence of the administration of the Union Territories of Daman and Diu.

China is famous for its massive cycling population where rural ownership of bicycles is around 100%, whereas in our country, it is 50%. Chennai leads in the manufacture of bicycles in the country, but there is hardly much space for willing cyclists to pedal around. According to a study by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) released in August this year, Pune, noted for its high cycling population for more than five decades, has shown a sharp decline in the ownership of bicycles among its residents since 2001. The percentage of bicycle owners in Pune has come down from 48 in 2001 to 33 in 2011. Chennai has a slightly higher percentage of ownership at 37 in 2011. It is still much below the national average of 46% in 2011.


Shoma A. Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’, among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.