A cycling India: To carve an alternative growth trail
By no means should it seem amazing – that bicycle ownership (30–50 per cent) in Indian cities is much higher than ownership of cars (3–13 per cent) and two-wheelers. Bicycle use in India varies from 7–15 per cent in large cities to 13–21 per cent in medium and small cities. Its high ownership, low cost and easy use attributes make the bicycle a desirable mode of transport for students and low-income workers. It is evident that bicycle use in India is primarily utility-based, with bicycle users being the captive riders.
Most medium and large cities in India have about 56 per cent to 72 per cent people making very short trips (below five kilometres trip length), offering a huge potential for bicycle use. Even in Delhi, it is estimated that more than 45 per cent of the trips of privately owned modes and 38 per cent of the trips by public modes are less than five kilometres. Proximity of academic institutions (mostly 3–4 kilometres), easy ridership, no license requirement and no fuel requirement are all factors that make the bicycle an attractive mode of travel for students. The conversion to cycle trips from other modes is highly likely, if a favourable cycling infrastructure is made available.
Communities in these cities have a latent demand for bicycles and walking trips, which can be realized with suitable facilities and resources. More bicycle trips will be attracted with a coherent, direct and safe bicycle infrastructure. However, the absence of safe infrastructure and high cycle fatalities deter these potential groups from shifting to bicycle use in large Indian cities.
In the past, the presence of the bicyclist was often ignored by policymakers, planners and engineers. Therefore, generally there have been no policy, programmes and plans for bicycle commuters in Indian cities.
Now, finally, things are changing. The tenth five-year plan (2003–07) and the national urban transport policy (NUTP) acknowledge the fact that there are non-motorized commuter groups with mobility and safety concerns, which need to be addressed by encouraging the construction of segregated rights of way for bicycles.
Under the aegis of the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), 63 cities in India have been given funds by the central government to upgrade their infrastructure. In most cities, investments in transport infrastructure account for 50–75 per cent of the expenditure. Since all new city mobility plans are required to comply with the NUTP guidelines, with a focus on 'equitable allocation of road space' and an emphasis on non-motorized transport, cycle-inclusive planning has gained importance. However, at present, Indian cities have little expertise to do cycle-inclusive planning.
The major shortcoming of almost all development proposals in Indian cities is that bicycle tracks have not been planned as an integral part of the road networks. Bicycle routes, if planned, have not been integrated at junctions. Few attempts had been made to identify complete bicycle networks. Dedicated infrastructure for cycling exists at some bridges and flyovers as a result of traffic-management strategies conceived and planned by the city traffic police, or as designed and maintained by the consultant/operator.
The safety aspect is paramount, of course. Bike lanes have to be sufficiently wide and more visible, bicycle-specific traffic lights added at tricky intersections, and street signs installed with mileage markers.
There is no lack of prototypes to adopt. At a first glance, it would even seem that in the context of a given community, bike-friendliness and quality of life are proportionally related.
Named as one of Forbes' Top Ten Places To Live In Europe, Copenhagen boasts of arguably the world's most successful community bicycle programme. Copenhagen estimates that it spends between $10 million and $20 million per year on bike infrastructure additions and improvements. Bicycle paths are often separated from the main traffic lanes and sometimes have their own signal systems. About 32 per cent of workers bicycle to work and 50 per cent say they cycle to work because it is fast and easy.
Amsterdam, more or less the bike capital of the world, has about 40 per cent of all traffic movements by bicycle. An extensive network of reliable and fast bicycle routes has been developed, a theft-prevention programme was set up, and the number of bicycle sheds increased. Amsterdam Bike Ramp at the central station holds over 7,000 bikes for commuters to park while they travel by train.
In New York City, bicycling is the fastest growing mode of transportation. The website Business Ethics reports that a 2006 citywide mandate has led to the laying down of some 200 miles of new bike paths. Also, the area around Madison Square in midtown is now bike-friendly, and seven blocks of Broadway feature green-painted bike lanes between the curb and the parking lane to provide cyclists, with a buffer against rushing motorized traffic.
According to the same report, Portland, Oregon, has allocated over $20 million over the last few years for bicycle infrastructure improvements, and plans to spend another $24 million upgrading the city's network of bike paths and trails. One of the city's latest innovations has been to convert two parking spaces on city streets to bike corrals capable of holding two dozen bicycles. In addition, the Bike Portland blog reports that the city now supports some 125 bike-related businesses, mostly small and locally owned, covering everything from custom-bike building to accessories and repair.
Can we in India expect the authorities to put together and see through a bicycle and pedestrian plan, complete with tree-lined boulevards and miles of designated lanes? Can we create, inspire and maintain a bicycle-friendly mentality that promotes a healthier, more active lifestyle for residents? That it also reinforces our reciprocal ties with nature may be seen as a somewhat incidental benefit.
On a random basis, the benefits of a cycling city are enough to justify the necessary adjustments in terms of planning, infrastructure and accommodation. Visualize this: decongested roads, no parking woes, a fitter population, less road rage (in fact, one can almost imagine bikers smiling at fellow bikers), less fatal accidents, and a general feeling of wellness.
That the solution is so simple and has always been there, is what tickles the mind and the imagination.
[First Published by CauseBecause October 19, 2010]