Many cities are cycling towards a better future. By shifting to two better wheels, more people are able to commute to work with ease and rediscover the pleasure of streets. Mobility has improved, congestion has eased and pollution has reduced. Reinventing bicycles has turned out to be the great urban story of the decade.

European cities are leading this renaissance and their successful bicycle programmes are widely replicated in various cities, from China to the United States, with a great sense of urgency. In contrast, Indian cities have hardly made plans to promote bicycles. Even the visible success of global cycling cities has not stirred the urban-policy makers here. After years of persuasion, instead of sprinting to catch up, they have just started to take hesitant steps towards bikes.

Cycling is not new to India. It was widely used for commuting, and until about 1994, its share in total daily trips made in cities was as high as 30 per cent. Instead of finding ways of capitalising on this large user base, transport policies over the years overlooked bicycles and promoted private motorised transport. Consequently, roads started to accommodate only motorised transport, edging out the bikes. The share of bicycles trips tumbled, reaching 11 per cent by 2008.

Turnaround in Europe

European cities too neglected bicycles in favour of cars, but they were wise enough to turn around quickly. Cycles which started as a niche recreational mode of transport in the 1900s became the popular transport choice of the lower- and middle-income groups in the following decades. But in the 1950s, as a study by Fietsberaad, the Dutch knowledge institute on bicycling, shows, its use declined sharply due to the rise of cars and increasing state support for private transport. In many cities, bicycle infrastructure was removed, cycle tracks were turned into car lanes and parking lots.

Such myopic policies proved detrimental. It increased fuel consumption; choked streets, caused emissions from motorised transport to exceed limits and denied equitable use of roads. In the late 1960s, though, city managers changed direction and took to bicycles in a big way. Apart from laying dedicated tracks, enhancing safety measures, and integrating with overall transport plans, they introduced a new public bicycle sharing system. Unlike the conventional renting system where one had to bring the cycle back to the same point where it was hired, the new system allowed users to drop the bike at docking stations near their destination. This was flexible, convenient and provided more choice. Bicycle use has risen significantly.

The share of cycle trips in the city increased significantly. In the Netherlands, it is as high as 35-40 per cent, and in Denmark it is 15-20 per cent. Even in the car-obsessed American cities, the share of bicycle trips tripled between 1977 and 2009. In Portland, the bike is the fast-growing mode of transport, and in New York about 200,000 people bicycle every day.

Key reasons for the success are convenience, safety and better speed. Most trip lengths are about 5 km, and this distance can be easily covered with bicycles. Public cycle sharing systems too offer a free ride for the first 30 minutes to encourage the use of two-wheelers for short distances. Riding is safe in dedicated lanes and the speed has also enhanced — one can reach about 20 km an hour. This is far more than the crawling speed of cars on urban Indian roads.

Cities consume 75 per cent of the energy and emit 80 per cent of the greenhouse gases. Promoting cycling is critical to reduce emissions and make cities resource efficient. A recent study by the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that in the case of the Vélib bicycle system in Paris, which covers an estimated 312,000 km a day, the saving is approximately 57,720 kg of CO{-2}a day. Reduction in pollution levels also improves public health. Research by Sustrans, a sustainable transport advocacy group in the U.K., shows that every £1 invested in cycling generates about £9 worth of benefits in decreased congestion and health costs.

Asian cities, once a haven for cycles, are showing a sense of urgency in rediscovering cycling. Hangzhou in China started its bike sharing programme in 2008 and quickly grew to be the largest in Asia with a fleet of 65,000 bicycles and more than 2,500 docking stations. It generates 172,000 trips a day, covers about 1 million km a day and avoids about 190,920 kg of CO{-2}in emissions. Korea plans to develop a 3,114-km bicycle-only network by 2018. Taiwan, too, has enthusiastically embraced bicycle programmes.

Indian cities have been lethargic and have not harnessed the available potential. The 2011 census figures reveal that a large number of people still own and use bicycles. Of the 246 million households in the country, 44.8 per cent own bicycles. In cities, while the percentage of car ownership is as low as 9.7 per cent, the bicycle ownership is 42 per cent. In Delhi alone, 2.8 million trips are made every day with cycles, almost equal to the number of car trips. Unfortunately, these figures have not had any bearing on transport policies, and people continue to rely increasingly on motorised transport and bear the burden of spiralling fuel costs.

NUTP ignored

The National Urban Transport Policy, 2006 announced that a more equitable allocation of road space and greater use of non-motorised transport would be among its thrust areas, but not much happened in the years that followed. Even the National Mission for Sustainable Development, proposed in 2008 and set up in 2010 to promote green cities, did not push for bicycle programmes. Fragmented cycle tracks started emerging alongside Bus Rapid Transit lanes, but a concerted plan was missing. Only in 2011 did the government announce a comprehensive national scheme to promote bicycle use and followed it up with toolkits published recently to help the States. A few cities have taken the initiative and are in the initial stages of rolling them out.

Questions whether European models would work in Indian conditions can be easily sorted out. What is more crucial is that local governments should have the will to invest in this sustainable mode of transport. Clearly, marking dedicated, well-designed cycle lanes on roads and ensuring safe riding are not only crucial for the success of cycling , it will also be a demonstration of the state’s commitment to share road space more equitably.

Fragmented cycle tracks have emerged in India, but a full plan is missing