Cities across the world are rediscovering bicycles. Pushed by increasing fuel costs, the compulsion to reduce commuting time, environmental concerns, and the need to make cities livable, many are back on better wheels. At the heart of this turnaround story is the widely popular Velib bicycle sharing system in Paris. Its success has been infectious: Montreal, Bogota, Hanghzou and many other cities have embraced cycling. Velib completed its fifth anniversary recently and its impressive journey offers an opportunity to reflect on the state of Indian cities. Public cycle sharing systems have been in existence in Europe since 1965, but its scale, design and convenience make the Paris system stand apart. As a result, more than 300,000 trips are made every day using cycles with an average speed of 15 km an hour — better than the speed of crawling cars on choked Indian roads. The world today, as the mayor of a French city observed, is divided into two: cities that have bicycle networks and others who want it. Where does that leave Indian cities? They belong to a third category: directionless.
Despite a high user base, Indian cities have no plans for cycles. For example, Delhiites make 2.8 million trips a day by cycling, which is almost equal to the number of trips made by car. But the city hardly has any safe cycle-lanes. Chennai, which has about 1.4 million cycles, is no better. Given the fact that the average trip length in Indian cities is within 5 km, bicycles are the best suited for such commutes. It is disheartening to see urban planners overlook this advantage. Worse, their policies have literally pushed cycles off the road, forcing the poor who use them the most to spend more and more on transportation. The larger benefit from promoting cycling lies in reducing energy consumption and pollution levels. Every car that is off the road saves 5.1 metric tonnes of CO2 a year and a five per cent increase in cycle trips across the world would cumulatively save 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. Realising the urgent need to promote non-motorised transport, many Asian cities are actively promoting them — Changwon in South Korea offers financial incentives to bolster cycle use; Hangzhou in China has a vast network integrated with the bus system; and Yogyakarta in Indonesia has introduced an accident insurance scheme to encourage cycle users. Indian cities should take a leaf out of these impressive examples closer home, start delineating dedicated lanes, and ensure safe riding. A people friendly, green, low-carbon city is no more a choice, but an imperative destination. Cycling more would get our cities there.