Last week (on Tuesday, June 25), Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte gifted a bicycle to Narendra Modi, who was visiting. Social media frenzy aside, the initial excitement also led to a crucial question: can our PM, or for that matter any other Indian citizen, ride a bicycle safely and comfortably in one of our metro cities?
Mr. Modi’s VVIP security concerns aside, it would have to be an emphatic no. Our city streets, at best, do not account for cyclists, at worst they are hostile territory. And besides, the pollution would negate any health benefits.
Air pollution and road congestion because of more vehicles has led many cities the world over — Amsterdam, New York, Copenhagen among others — to create policies to promote the use of bicycles. Plus there are health and fitness benefits.
But India’s growing metropolises seem to focus only on encouraging more motorised private vehicles onto the roads.
In Mumbai, for instance, our 2,000 km of roads and more than 65 flyovers and viaducts — with more being developed and proposed — seems to be exclusively designed for cars and two-wheeler users. (Even two-wheelers don’t have the full right of the roads: the Mohammad Ali Road viaduct, the Eastern Freeway and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link do not permit motorcycles and scooters). BEST buses sputter their way through potholed lower levels while car users are literally higher beings, cruising along the flyovers.
This looks unfairly skewed when you look at these numbers.
Of Mumbai’s 1.2 crore population (as per the 2011 census), the Draft Development Plan for Greater Mumbai 2014-2034 shows that just 7% use private motor vehicles (including two-wheelers). Another 42% use public transport (trains, buses, autorickshaws, black-and-yellow taxis and others). But more than half of us — 51% — use non-motorised transport (we walk, or cycle).
Cycling in Mumbai
For evangelists of cycling, that 51% is not as good as it looks. There is no detailed historic data available, but in 2008, a Ministry of Urban Development study showed that cycling constituted 6% of the overall transportation in Mumbai. More recent data from the London School Economics-Cities, during a Smart Cities programme, showed a decline, with only 0.8% using cycles.
For a considerable chunk, the cycle is more than transport: it is an important component of their working life. These include the dabbawalas, deliverers of newspapers and milk, delivery boys from neighbourhood kirana shops and restaurants, and a host of small door-to-door vendors who have survived e-commerce.
A second set are people who cycle to work every day: lower-income workers who live close to their workplace and are reluctant or unable to afford public transport, which would include administrative support staff, low-grade government employees, and informal sector workers like domestic staff and society watchmen.
In the middle class, the largest slice would be students pedalling to schools and colleges or for tuitions.
There is also a fast-growing segment of recreational cyclists now, from the upper middle class, who ride high-end bicycles primarily for leisure and fitness reasons. Such cycling groups, though very small in number, are slowly mushrooming in several well-off pockets of the city.
Why the low numbers?
Cycling in India has socio-economic baggage, and still does. Even in that small slice who are cyclists, the majority are from the economically ‘lower middle class’; and cycling to or for work may be seen by the upwardly-mobile from the lower economic strata as something to leave behind as quickly as possible.
But that is not the only reason for the decline.
Bluntly put, catering to cyclists has been an afterthought with those who make the decisions on our transport infrastructure.
In the last two decades, Mumbai has spent over ₹20,000 crore for the construction, operation and maintenance of 2,000-odd km of roads in the city. These roads are mostly designed to facilitate the movement of personal motor vehicles, which carry a tiny minority of us. (Very little provision is made for pedestrians too.)
Most big-ticket ‘mega’ projects are planned and commissioned without fully understanding the implication of the costs and benefits, let alone the value of inclusive pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly design.
Prime examples of this short-sightedness: the ₹1,600-odd crore Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which opened in 2010, and has an average daily traffic of around 37,500 vehicles; and the ₹1,436 crore Eastern Freeway with 23,000 vehicles. These projects are of no value to more than half of the city’s commuting population. They do not even permit motorised two-wheelers, let alone cyclists or pedestrians.
While buses are allowed on these flyovers/roads, they can’t use them as bus stops are at the lower level.
Projects aimed at smoother commutes for car-users seem to be the trend in Mumbai. Take the ₹15,000-crore Coastal Road or the ₹7,502-crore Versova-Bandra Sea Link.
Developing a plan for cycling is an afterthought, it would seem. For example, the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for Mumbai estimates an investment of ₹1.67 lakh crore. Of that, ₹178 crore is for developing cycling tracks, just a fraction over 1%.
Half-hearted civic plans & other efforts
Mumbai’s powers-that-be have, to be fair, made attempts to encourage cycling. But those were at best feeble, unplanned and not thought through. Result: premature failure, and a negative impact.
A few years ago, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) constructed a 13-km cycling track in the Bombay-Kurla Complex. It cost close to ₹6.5 crore and was inaugurated in 2011, with much fanfare, by the then-Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. Lack of maintenance and protection, though, saw it being used as a free parking lane. Unable to keep up, the MMRDA dismantled a section of the track in 2015, to make way for a dedicated bus lane. In 2016, the bus lane was also declared as failed and was dismantled.
More recently, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) proposed a 2.5-km segregated cycle track on Bandra’s Carter Road. This project is yet to happen.
FreMo, a private sector cycle sharing project, launched in Thane in 2009, aiming to provide cheap, healthy, and fast first- and last-mile connectivity for residents with simple gearless bikes. A user could take a bicycle (and helmets, keypads, and bags) from one location and drop them at another. All they had to do was register with FreMo with identity documents. Though officially operational, this project has been trailing behind for years, with a stagnant ridership of not more than 25 users.
A similar initiative in Mulund, Cycle Chalao, also launched in 2009, aimed at college students. The service had six cycle stations and 60 cycles. Initial funding came from founding members, but they designed the system for regular revenue flow for maintenance: they charged users a one-time subscription, and offered advertisements placement on the docking stations. In the initial months, Cycle Chalao saw approximately 250 students using the bikes. But the novelty waned, and Cycle Chalao shut shop.
Maybe these private enterprises were ahead of their time. Certainly, though, they got no support from public agencies in terms of infrastructure, administrative approvals, parking spaces and so on.
Examples from elsewhere
European cities, including Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Strasbourg, and Antwerp, have used ‘liveable cities’ trigger to promote cycling; they have realised that as the modal share of bicycle increases, so does the quality of life of its citizens.
Indeed Europe is the cradle of bicycle-sharing systems, with the first one way back in 1965 in Amsterdam. Today more than 215 cities from around the world have such systems. Copenhagen has invested $150 million in cycling infrastructure and facilities, with 16 new bridges for bicycles and pedestrians, eight of which have already been opened. About 62% of Copenhagen’s people commute by cycle. Strasbourg leads France with a 16% modal share for bicycle commuting; it also subsidises cargo cycles for citizens, and is planning an integrated network of ‘bicycle superhighways.’
Even in the USA, exemplar of auto-centric development, where promoting cycling was once considered a virtual impossibility, many cities are becoming case studies for their remarkable turnarounds. A report from the Alliance for Biking and Walking says that cities like Washington, Minneapolis, Portland, and Oregon have seen a rise in the use of cycles by as much as 71%.
One of the main reasons for this shift is that these cities are enabling safe cycling. Los Angeles today has more than 1,300 km of cycle tracks. New York has more than 100 km of protected cycle tracks; cycling has tripled in the last 15 years and an estimated 4.5 lakh-plus cycle trips are made every day. Investment in cycling infrastructure has also birthed bike-sharing systems.
In Asia, Beijing, once a cycling city, saw a sharp drop in bike use. Over 63% of trips made on bicycles in 1986; but as cycle lanes lost out to motorists in the 1990s, that fell to 14% in 2012. Now, though, with the city’s notorious air pollution, a rethink is happening: Beijing’s Urban Master Plan aims to increase its bicycle modal share to 20% by 2020. One of the strategies to achieve this is to re-engineer the city’s roads to bring back safe bicycle lanes on either side.
Even in India, many city governments have begun pushing cycling.
Last week, Bhopal set an example by launching India’s first fully automated, fully integrated, Public Bicycle Sharing (PBS) system, with nearly 500 bicycles and 50 docking stations across the city. Users can pick up a cycle from one station and deposit it another. The network provides convenient first- and last-mile connectivity to the bus system, and an integrated payment system where the same smart card can be used for the bikes, local bus services, and the Bus Rapid Transport System. The city has also started developing segregated cycle tracks: it inaugurated a 5-metre-wide, 12-km long cycle lane as part of the PBS project.
Mysore and Bengaluru, among other cities, have also been pushing for bicycle-friendly institutions.
What we can all do
We need strategies that promote cycling — and sustainable transport in general — in this ever-expanding city. There are parts to play for all of us.
Planning and policy
- In development plans, Mumbai’s administrators need to create multi-nuclei city centres so that residents can avoid long-distance commutes. Transit-oriented development is one such example that can make cities much more energy-efficient, better connected, and less polluted. Short commutes would encourage more bicycle use.
- The city has prioritised private motorised transport over non-motorised and public transport. This must change. We must invest and plan for pedestrians, for cyclists, for public transport.'
- For cycling specifically, the city must create infrastructure, like protected bicycling lanes and dedicated (and safe) bicycle parking. Future infrastructure being planned now — the coastal road, the Versova-Bandra link road, the trans-harbour link — must be compelled to include bicycle lanes.
- Particularly congested and polluted parts of the metropolitan region could ban motor vehicles and only allow human-powered transport, with the exception of emergency vehicles.
Entrepreneurs can contribute
Of course enterprise has a role to play in developing more sustainable energy sources and vehicles. Entrepreneurs can step in to the bicycle game too, to create last- and first-mile solutions best suited to the peculiarities of the various parts of the city. Technology and data-based decision-making could improve the quality of services. The next Uber of Ola need not be using cars.
You and I
Gustavo Petro, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, is reported to have said, "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation."
With the extreme wealth disparities we have in this city, this country, that scenario may be a long way off for us. But we can make a start.
- Write to your elected representatives, to the city’s administrators — even better, find them on social media and write to them publicly — to work towards safe bike lanes and parking.
- Start yourself. Buy a bicycle. Do all the local errands on it. Your body will thank you.