A lot was riding on the Anna Nagar cycle track project. The proposal showed that the city did care about its vulnerable road users. Now with the Chennai Corporation putting the project on hold, citing lack of funds, residents are beginning to question the commitment of the civic body. The Corporation has claimed that there is not enough money to build an initial 8-km of cycle tracks at a cost of Rs.14 crore.

However, over Rs.250 crore was spent in the last four-and-a-half years to build flyovers and over-bridges in various parts of the city. Much of that spending was directed at improving the travel speed of cars. On the other hand, though walking and cycling account for 34 per cent of all trips undertaken in the city, infrastructure for these modes is low to non-existent, says the CMDA's Chennai Traffic and Transportation Study.

According to figures from the traffic police, in the last five years (2005-10), over 1,600 cyclists and 7,100 pedestrians were involved in an accident on just 24 arterial roads in the city. The same group accounts for nearly 52 per cent of all road accident fatalities.

Mayor M. Subramanian said that the designs submitted by the consultants for the Anna Nagar project are “similar to European countries”. Since it was a bit costly to implement and might affect the funding of other infrastructure works, a simplified scheme would be evolved, he said. “Cycle tracks are essential for the city and definitely need to be implemented,” he added.

Raj Cherubal of Chennai City Connect, an NGO which served as one of the consultants for the project, said that just painting a yellow line on the road and erecting a few barricades will not result in a cycle track. “If Chennai wants to be a world-class city, we need to do world-class engineering. The Corporation has tried similar approaches on P.H. Road, but it failed.”

Stressing that there was no such thing called a European design as bicycles are the same everywhere, he said that the Corporation could use other materials than the ones suggested to bring down cost. “The civic body also has to take up 40 to 50 major roads and redesign them as part of a ‘complete street project',” he added. Providing space for cycle tracks is not just about social equity. It could have major public health benefits. According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is second only to tobacco smoking as a health risk. The WHO's 2002 report, based on case studies in European cities, suggests that increasing physical activity is a public health “best buy”, and that cycling as a mode of mobility is a “highly suitable activity” for this purpose.

Cities such as London, which has a population similar to that of Chennai, have integrated this vision of public health guiding decisions on urban transit. The city has a wide network of cycle tracks and bicycles are available for short-term rentals at 400 docking stations in central London.

Even the Ministry of Urban Development has convened a meeting on June 27 to consider implementing such a bicycle sharing scheme in 2 or 3 Indian cities.

An example closer home is the 16-km-long bicycle lane network in Delhi.

Anvita Arora of IIT-Delhi who was closely involved in the New Delhi cycle track project says that once the infrastructure was put in place, the number of cyclists rose by 50 per cent within a year. “In one particular 6-km corridor, cyclists travel at speeds greater than cars. Segregating traffic by providing adequate space for pedestrians and cyclists is beneficial to all. Any road that is wider than 24 metre needs to have a cycle track. Our cities must start moving towards equitable distribution of road space.”