It’s a pleasant idea to contemplate—a track that runs like a divider down the road, protected by metal obstructions on either side and shaded by trees. For someone who believes in cycles over motorised transport, it would be a beautiful sight to behold. I beheld such a sight recently in Lucknow, but sadly, only in brief fragments.
One shady stretch of cycling track would run down the middle of a road, but it would come to a rude halt at a roundabout or at the cross-roads junction. It was as if whoever had designed and built the cycling track had suddenly run out of patience with the idea that cyclists need clear passage and protection against heavier motor vehicles. Confronting a roundabout, the designers seem to have thrown up their hands and said, I can’t do this, man!
The former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, had had the fine idea (and I say this with no sarcasm; it is indeed a fine idea) to create cycling tracks across the state capital. It had a lot to do with the fact that his election symbol is a bicycle, but that doesn’t cancel out the goodness of the initiative. There is no denying that bicycles are the cheapest, healthiest, most environment-friendly form of transport available to us. There were plans to create hundreds of kilometres worth of cycle tracks across Lucknow, and about 35 kilometres worth of tracks were reportedly created in the first phase. Yadav had even wanted cycle track highways to connect other towns like Agra and Etawah.
In urban design, however, well begun is not half done. One has to envision difficulties and criticisms before starting to create a new thing. One must tweak existing systems to support a new system. There is not much point sticking to a cycle track if a rider is going to confront the full force of motorised vehicular traffic at a tricky junction, or if he/she cannot turn right or left safely.
As it turned out, there weren’t enough cyclists using the track, and everyone complained about the waste of money.
Reports from Chandigarh have suggested that nearly 70 kilometres worth of cycle tracks created in recent years were being misused. If a state wants to nudge people towards cycling, it needs to create parking spaces suitable for bicycles too.
A stand is not the same as a parking lot. It needs metal enclosures or rods to which a bicycle can be chained, and preferably locks and chains available on hire for those who don’t carry them around.
If the state wishes to encourage cycling, it must create rental facilities, which means creating a network of pick-up and drop-off centres. It also doesn’t help to model our systems on foreign cities, where commuters can just unlock a rental bicycle off the sidewalk. We are a nation, after all, where even the metal mugs in a public toilet need to be chained to the tap.
The interrupted cycle track and the lack of secure parking are reminders of how much urban design in India is left to the imaginations of those who do not actually suffer the worst consequences of their work. It is also a reminder of how our governments rarely consult affected groups of citizens, in this case, potential cyclists.
The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen