One would have thought that in the face of compelling arguments in support of the bicycle, those who preside over the fate of this city would keep aside a fair share of the road for bicycle tracks. But that is not to be…
In this column a few weeks ago I had cited the Bicycle Tours that Percival Spear, professor of History at St Stephen’s College, had designed for his students. Professor Spear died in 1982, I do not know for how long he led his students on these bicycle trips, but I can say from my recollections of the Delhi of the 1980s that the bicycle was a very popular means of transport well into the mid- Eighties. One can almost time the arrival of the Maruti car to the gradual decline of the bicycle from what has come to be known as the “heart” of the city. Whether it is actually the heart of the city or just a place where the state heartlessly beats-up peaceful protestors has been demonstrated recently.
The bicycle was popular not only among what is now called the “lower strata of society” but also among the middle and upper middle classes. The number of students who came to college on bicycles and the number of babus who parked their bikes in the huge sheds outside each ministry building in New Delhi testified to the popularity of this dependent mode of transport.
The bicycle kept its rider healthy, did not burn carbon fuel, did not pollute, did not breakdown as often as the automobile and when it did it was fixed in a jiffy at the roadside cycle repair shop. The bicycle did not need insurance or a driving licence, it occupied less space while being ridden and when parked and yet it has virtually been pushed out from the city, or so it would appear.
But appearances are deceptive and there are reports prepared by Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme (TRIPP) of the IIT Delhi to show that the opposite is true. A study conducted by Geetam Tiwari and her team called “The Bicycle Master Plan for Delhi 1999” (second Impression published in 2005) has shown that according to studies conducted by CRRI (Central Road Research Institute) in Delhi in 1990 “….bicycles contributed as much as 34 per cent of the traffic” on certain corridors. The report also noted that on many arterial roads bicycles constitute up to 30 per cent of the total peak time traffic and on Rohtak Road (leading to many small and big industrial areas) bicycles constituted as much as 43 per cent of all peak time traffic.
A large number of school children, especially those attending neighbourhood schools use bicycles. A great many short trips to the market are made on bicycles and an overwhelming majority of service providers, like plumbers, electricians, carpenters, house-painters, washermen, wastepaper-wallahs, postmen and couriers, cooking gas delivery men, and those engaged in jobs like repairing of house hold fittings, fixtures and gadgets amongst others, rely almost exclusively on bicycles.
The report points to the fact that for almost 28 per cent of the population commuting by buses is not a viable proposition because the so-called public transport is beyond the reach of the poor of the city. One can also add here that the same is true of the Delhi Metro. The only way this population can travel is on foot or on bicycle. Add to this the fact that the contribution of automobiles to the total pollution in the city is as high as 70 per cent, automobiles also contribute heavily to the ambient noise in the city through the constant revving up of the engines and the incessant blaring of the car horns, trade mark features of the average Delhi driver.
One would have thought that in the face of such compelling arguments in support of the bicycle, those who preside over the fate of this city would keep aside a fair share of the road for building bicycle tracks and that this would be a part of all schemes of modernisation of our traffic.
But no, except for a handful of roads and strangely a few bridges that have segregated bicycle tracks, an overwhelming majority of roads do not make any provision for the cyclist. The bridges that do have cycle tracks invariably have no such provision on the roads that lead up to the bridge, while the cycle track built on the BRT has been taken over by scooter and motorcycle owners.
The cyclist is thus forced into the extreme left lane, compelled to share space with buses and other heavy vehicles and forced to weave in and out of the on rushing traffic. Is it any wonder that so many are crushed to death? These large fatalities, second only to pedestrian deaths, should have been sufficient reason to create separate tracks for bicycles.
Common sense solutions like these apparently do not appeal to those who want to turn Delhi into a city where only the writ of the car-wallahs would run. For the bulk of our town planners the poor, even if they are almost 30 per cent of the city’s population, have no claim on this city.
One had grown up believing that a test of democracy is not merely the rule of the powerful majority, but the security it afforded to the marginalised and the powerless. Recent events seem to suggest that the Indian state and those who move its creaky wheels have another definition of democracy.