Just as the morning rush-hour traffic starts to kick in, groups of uniformed children armed with backpacks and lunch bags can be seen hitting the city's roads on bicycles. For many of them, the simple bicycle which they use to commute to school is a symbol of freedom.
Sabarish Elango, a Class IX student of Anna Gem Science Park Matriculation Higher Secondary School, is one such student who regularly cycles to school, which is one km away. “I like cycling. Carrying my heavy school bag is easier when I'm on a cycle. It also takes less time to reach school,” he says.
A study conducted to rationalise the proposal to introduce cycle lanes in Anna Nagar found that 21.5 per cent of the over 28,000 students studying in 14 schools in the locality use a bicycle to get to school.
According to the Department of School Education, the city has about 5.5 lakh school-going children. Assuming 20 per cent of them use a cycle, a little more than one lakh children cycle to school everyday.
Though the percentage of users might be low due to the increasing reliance on motorised vehicles, P.K. Sikdar, former director of the New Delhi-based Central Road Research Institute, feels cyclists deserve better infrastructure just because of their absolute numbers. “The additional trips made by parents to drop their children off at school are an unnecessary burden on the city's road space.”
According to him, if more students start cycling to school, it will reduce road congestion around the school entrance, a big problem for most of the institutions with limited drop-off space. “Pro-cycling policies can reverse this trend and provide better safety for pedestrians and cyclists.”
Due to lack of safety for cyclists on the road, many school students opt for either autorickshaws or private vans, which are over-crowded. In 2009, the city witnessed 18 accidents involving students on their way to school and two of them were fatalities. There have been eight accidents involving school-going children this year till June.
Stressing that cycling must be encouraged, M. Ravi, Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic), said “We have started a drive to reduce the vehicular emission load in the city. A pollution-free mode of transport like cycling will definitely help in improving the ambient air quality.”
He added that if adequate space is available, the police will look into providing dedicated space for cyclists at least near school zones.
Aparna S. Gharpure, child psychologist, says “The physical effort of cycling to school has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and improve children's self-confidence and independence. Cycling teaches important life skills. Parents who drive their children to school risk creating a habit of dependency that undermines children's confidence and self-reliance.” She adds that cycling also helps children develop road sense at a young age. “It helps them to assess risk and think for themselves.”