India’s biking communities are pedalling for a sustainable shuttle possibility post-COVID-19

Sumati Prabhakar and her husband MA Prabhakar were in need of help during the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in Bengaluru. The elderly couple could not step out of their home. But they were hardly discomforted. Groceries were delivered at doorstep. Medicines reached them on time. Even a drainage problem was fixed swiftly. Sumati thanks Relief Riders, a group of 200 plus cyclists who support the city’s senior citizens during the lockdown.

The volunteers are a part of the #CycleToWork campaign that Bengaluru’s bicycle mayor, Sathya Sankaran launched in 2018. He is a part of BYCS, a Dutch social enterprise that heads a worldwide network of international cycle mayors. The organisation’s 50by30 mission envisions making half of the world’s city trips by bicycle, by 2030.

Sankaran and other bicycle mayors of India believe the COVID-19 lockdown could catalyse this movement. “Public transport is going to be less secure,” says Sankaran, “So, using individual motor vehicles seems like the easy alternative. Normalcy doesn’t have to necessarily mean going back to our old ways. We can practise a sustainable way of life.”

Seeking support

Sankaran along with Dr Arvind Bhateja, a neurosurgeon and a cyclist, have come up with the #ResetWithCycling campaign that brings together citizens, doctors, environmentalists, urban planners and the Government to revive cities’ transport after the lockdown.

Bengaluru Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao said in support of the campaign, “I am urging you to come out and ride our cycle for your own interest and the interest of the city. Spread the word in the community, make it a bigger group.”

Bicycle mayors from other cities are following suit. Felix John in Chennai has written to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister seeking better infrastructure for cyclists. “We are usually considered a nuisance to motorists on roads,” he says, “Now is a good time for the authorities to experiment with cycle corridors on commercial roads like OMR.”

In Pune, Abhijeet Kupate wrote to the city’s Mayor and Police Commissioner. The city’s civic body, Pune Municipal Corporation, has a ‘comprehensive bicycle plan’ to develop cycle tracks and design parking spaces among others. Despite this, Abhijeet says, “There’s a lack of strategy and planning. I haven’t received any responses from the authorities that I wrote to.”

Guwahati’s bicycle mayor, Arshel Akhter, has also requested the Assam Government to make the city’s roads bike-friendly. He says, “The Government, however, seems reluctant to implement such projects. Maybe it is not focusing on these things now. But it will benefit a lot of people. Most people who cycle to work belong to low-income groups.”

Feasibility in India

The Energy and Resources Institute’s (TERI) report from 2018, Benefits of Cycling in India, estimates that 50% of Indians walk or cycle to work (excluding agriculture and household industries). In urban areas,after walking, workers are most dependent on two-wheelers.

It estimates India can save ₹ 27 billion in fuel and ₹ 241 billion due to reduced air pollution if 50 % of two-wheeler and four-wheeler trips (within eight kilometres) are substituted by cycle journeys. The report adds, “If bicycles were to substitute the two-and four-wheelers used for short-distance trips, it can result in an annual benefit of ₹1.8 trillion.”

“India’s the world’s diabetic capital. More than a 100 million are affected by obesity. This can all be reduced if people switch to cycling. The endorphins, a cycle-ride helps release, is good for your mental health,” says Dr Bhateja.

But can India redesign its cities to accommodate cyclists?

Sonal Kulkarni, an urban transport policy planner, says it can. “Our cities are similar to the ones in Europe, which are more conducive to cyclists. If it were like the ones in the US, it might have been difficult. If the people and the Government cooperate, we can reinvent the way we commute .”

She adds, “The Government should recommend cycling in their guidelines and incentivise cyclists. We can get used to the changes now and it will be the new normal after the crisis is over.”

Even if the Government implements cyclist-friendly measures, two- and four-wheeler owners might hesitate to switch to a bicycle. Hot summers, dusty roads with potholes and physical exertion are potential deterrents.

Of this, Dr Bhateja says, “Of course, a change such as this is going to be difficult. But at some point, we need to think of the greater good as well.”

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