The Sunday Story The roads may be turning increasingly hostile to the bicycle rider, but in several developing countries, the two-wheeled vehicle continues to be a source of empowerment and liberation to girls and women.

The roads may be turning increasingly hostile to the bicycle rider, but in several developing countries, the two-wheeled vehicle continues to be a source of empowerment and liberation to girls and women.

Much as technology has advanced the basic design of a bicycle is unchanged, and the social impact of the bicycle today is not very different from what it was when the first set of wheels made their appearance in the United States, France and Britain.

For many dormant decades from early to mid 19th century the form of the bicycle with one large wheel did not make it popular. It was the arrival of a ‘safety’ design in the 1880s that made it easier for women to ride.

Since the prevailing clothing styles were unsuitable for women wanting to ride a bicycle, new clothes appeared. “Billowing skirts were out and bloomers were in,” according to The World Awheel, an early cycling book hosted by the University of Indiana library. The reputation of the bicycle as a means to liberation grew stronger, when it was opposed in Victorian England, Europe and America as a threat to prevailing morality and values. For young people, it enabled far longer rides — away from the gaze of elders — that only expensive horses and carriages could match.

Today, in Zambia and in several other African countries, young women who receive Asian-made bikes from non-governmental organisations welcome it as a vehicle not just for basic mobility, but more years of education. It is an engine for both economic and cultural advancement, donors say. The first recipient of a gift bicycle in 2009, Mary Lewanika in rural Zambia said she felt “safer on the long, sometimes dangerous path to school,” and the vehicle was crucial to her continuing her schooling.

At home, in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, the literacy mission produced the powerful spinoff in the late 1990s of women learning to ride bicycles and breaking the confines of narrow spaces. The beneficiaries included Dalits, one of them a quarry worker who said the bicycle helped her break “gender, age, caste and class barriers.”

Historically, the number of bicycle manufacturers in the developed world shrank as other modes of transport rose in prominence. In some places, electric railways took over spaces previously used by people riding cycles.

But as congestion and concerns about fuel prices, pollution and health have become key issues in recent years, the bicycle is moving to a new iteration: as shared bike systems in some 500 cities globally, prominent among which are New York, London, Barcelona, Paris, Copenhagen, Turin, Wuhan and Singapore. By one account, there are half-a-million bikes in all these systems combined.

The bicycle still empowers and liberates in India, but the States that give them away to beneficiaries have no serious programme to enable people to ride them in cities and towns.

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