Pedalling to a new dawn

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WHAT do you do when a rapidly exploding population starts an exodus to the cities and chokes up the roads, making commuting a nightmare even at high noon? Go in for more cars and better roads designed to take the load? Or do you promote an alternative mode of transport that does not vomit noxious fumes and suits the pockets of the majority?

Enter the bicycle: handy, cheap, healthy and ecofriendly. India is one of the few nations in the world where the bicycle is used by large groups of the population not merely for personal transportation but also for business. A lot of goods are carried in bicycles. Many small entrepreneurs and workers carry their equipment with them on their bicycles. In the countryside, there are cyclists from all social classes, the bicycle being an efficient and affordable way of transportation in flat areas when the weather conditions are moderate. Add to this horde the low-incomers, the skilled and the professional groups.

In the cities, a lot of the people with low incomes and the young from all classes own a bike. Their daily struggle for survival in the high-gassed traffic pits them against the aggressive supremacy of cars and buses. Pedal-pushers get little space and no facilities. Despite all the advantages of femur-powered two-wheelers, they are far from any policy agenda.
The wheels of neglect The ubiquitous bicycle is forgotten by Indians mulling about the future. Even as millions buy bicycles, the government is staking all its cards on less efficient solutions like automobiles. A saving in environmental quality by increased bicycle use and consequently, slower car growth, is being reversed by other developments. Governments forget the bicycle in their transportation plans, architects and planners design neighbourhoods and buildings with no thought given to the friendly two-wheeler.

But there is no escaping the fact that the bicycle is important and will be more so in the future. According to different estimates, the number of bicycles in India range from 53 to 65 million. In 1951, bicycles accounted for 2.2 billion passengers kilometre (PKm), which rose to 57 billion PKm in 1985, about 6 per cent of the total PKm covered by all means of transportation, which was 919 billion in the same year.

Income is the most important parameter that determines the choice of vehicle for transportation. As soon as a person or a family manages to organise enough money, a motor vehicle -- a scooter or a car -- is bought. According to popular opinion, everybody wants to own a car as soon as possible.

A close look at the facts, however, reveals a different picture. When people enter the stage from subsistence income to low-income, it is the bicycle that is considered an important tool to get a job, to go to school and visit friends. The enormous numbers of people in the low income group, who do not possess any means of transportation now, will buy a bicycle as soon as they can afford it. For them a bicycle means more economic opportunities.
Punctured image The government, however, puts most of the money available into build more roads, more flyovers and more car parking facilities. India is bent on projecting a modern image by prioritising the private car and forgetting the needs of its mammoth army of bicyclists. This image-making reconfirms the elitist notion that the country is making progress -- a notion meant to considerably reassure the foreign investor.

Only in a few cities like pleasant Pune -- which is, ironically, the production home of most of India's motorised 2-wheelers -- is the bicycle on the government planning agenda. It ranks second among the modes of transportation in the city, only after the legs of pedestrians. The most recent study on transportation in 12 major Indian cities, conducted by the Central government in 1986, does not even mention walking, although pedestrian trips could vary from 40 to 70 per cent of the daily traffic.

It is undeniable that the use of motor vehicles grew immensely: from 0.6 million in 1960 to 15 million in 1990. But Indian roads have also become more dangerous. According to Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, deaths from traffic accidents have increased more than 10 times -- from 4,500 in 1960 to over 500,000 in 1990. Policymakers in India seem to be totally unaware that the bicycle is part of the solution for India's transportation and air quality problems. An advantage that India has that, unlike other developing countries, bicycles are a part of its socio-cultural life. It is also important to note that, according to the Central Road Research Institute in Delhi, motor vehicle emissions account for more than 50 per cent of the total pollutants in major cities.

Public transport is part of the solution to reduce this alarming trend. Local bus transport and auto rickshaws are important, but they belch gouts of gases. The bicycle, in a scenario like this, can plug the gaps in the public transport systems and help to clear the grey pall of smoke that hangs threateningly over every Indian city.

A lot of money is put into building roads and car parking areas in the cities to stimulate economic growth. A part of this money could well be used to encourage bicycle use in the country, which will in turn create a lot of jobs. Already, thousands have set up small businesses along the roads to provide all kinds of services to bicyclists. More employment is foreseen when the bicycle gets more priority. In a country like India, where the majority is poor, promoting the bicycle makes impeccable sense.

Effective and efficient
The key to an answer lies in the growing awareness that in certain situations -- even pollution thresholds apparently near the point of no return -- the bicycle is the most effective and efficient method of transportation. Better air quality in the cities is both a positive side effect, apart from, of course, being a pre-condition for more cycling, and better air, throughout the year.

Once the bicycle is fashionable among the middle class -- as it is getting to be now -- it could influence the aspirations of other strata. The younger generation, particularly, might be more open to new concepts of healthy living. As the incidents of heart attacks and other related diseases grow and the people discover joy and health in solutions like cycling, many will opt for it rather than the punishing schedule of the fitness room.

For state agencies, road safety factors for cyclists should be the most important issue. Part of the transportation budgets should be invested in bicycle networks and other facilities. For longer distances than the muscles will accept, the combination of the bicycle and public transport is a good option. A system of fast bus lanes linked with bike shelter facilities and a good network of bicycle tracks is obviously the need of the hour. One could start with a few experiments in the major cities and carry on from there.

More bicycles, more jobs
The bicycle industry, maturing and manoeuvring its way out of state-determined production targets, can play an important role in putting the bicycle back on the transport agenda. On the one hand, the liberalisation of the Indian economy can, given providence, very well result in more bicycles, something the people can really afford. On the other, if a free market means much higher prices -- as it might -- a lot of people will not able to afford a bicycle.

As cycle use increases, a whole gamut of jobs will be created. Besides more employment in the manufacturing sector, thousands will find a job in shelter facilities and other services. The facilities for hiring bicycles could also be enlarged and developed as a serious option to buying them in many locations.

For non-governmental organisations, especially those organisations committed to clean air, the promotion of bicycles should become an important issue. An awareness campaign highlighting the merits of a bicycle policy as one of the realistic answers to the commuting and environmental problems of the nation should be initiated as soon as possible.

Derk J Van der Laan, a geographer and consultant based in Amsterdam, wrote this article with inputs from Devendra Chauhan in India