If the Public Bicycle Scheme for 10 cities envisaged by the Ministry of Urban Development can get rolling and achieve critical mass, it can elevate the humble bicycle to a relaxed, mainstream mode of urban transport. Shared bicycles have won attention in many European cities, notably in Spain and France, and have been making inroads in America. There's nothing novel about using a bicycle as a mobility option in India. But what makes the Ministry's plans under the Mission for Sustainable Habitat different is the attempt to move pedal power up the value chain. It will feature modern bicycles, Information Technology-based operations, control and management systems, and high visibility. These qualities can win converts from the users of cars and motorised two-wheelers. The shift is essential because the outcome can reinforce the principle of equity in the use of roads, ease congestion, and reduce pollution. The benefits will be multi-dimensional. The biggest hurdle to greater use of bicycles in India's cities is not lack of popular demand — but a hostile external environment. The National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 addressed the problem of lack of safety for non-motorised transport but bicycle-inclusive city planning has not followed. If this does not get priority, the public bicycle scheme cannot take off in the first tier of cities.
Bicycles are a low-cost, non-polluting means of getting around but the international experience points to challenges that need to be overcome while implementing shared systems. The Velib in Paris encountered high rates of loss and vandalism but London has fared better and Barcelona's four-year-old Bicing programme has measurably cut down carbon dioxide emissions. There is little doubt that attracting more people, including the better-off sections of society, to this mode of transport will make India's roads safer for the thousands of less affluent cyclists who remain virtually invisible to policymakers. A good start can be made by locating shared bicycle stations in school zones. This can help build loyalty for the programme and community support for re-engineering roads around schools. The 2006 policy did emphasise building segregated rights of way for bicycles and pedestrians but most State governments have ignored the advice, favouring car-oriented development instead. The Urban Development Ministry's plan provides the opportunity to review urban development policies. To advance the egalitarian goal of getting more people to take to bicycles in cities, there must be a conscious effort to restrain motorised traffic and reduce speed. This can be done using road design and policy.