Why Indian cities must make way for cyclists

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Taking bicycles out on city roads is risky business as stubborn urban challenges keep cycle lanes either non-existent or unused. New-age bike-sharing apps trying to fill the space are finding it hard to scale up without demand while pollution watchers groan in dismay.

Road safety is among the top reasons why Indians are wary of adopting the practice, more than discomforting weather, long distances or pollution, found a 2014 survey by The Energy and Resources Institute. In 2020, road deaths involving bicycles rose 2.5% to a seven-year high, even though total accident deaths dropped to an 11-year low. The share of bicycle deaths in all accidents, although low, has been rising, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. In large cities, the share is higher despite lower bicycle ownership.

While ownership of bicycles has stayed stagnant in the last 15 years, their use for travel has dropped as cars and motorcycles have become ubiquitous. As per the National Transport Development Policy Committee, 2013, the ideal modal share of bicycles in million-plus cities should be 10-12%. However, a number of our cities fail to meet this standard. In Delhi, it stands below 5%, after falling more than 30 percentage points since the 1950s.

Infra challenge

Bicycles need fairly low-cost infrastructure, and small investments can go a long way. Safe cycling facilities can be integrated in road projects with just about 10% extra money, say transport experts. The Chandigarh administration found in a survey that basic elements such as lack of lighting, open manholes, unpruned trees and unsafe junctions can be deterrents to cyclists. Although data is not available, anecdotal accounts suggest the city has witnessed a surge of cyclists in the last few years after attempts to address such challenges. The city has seen a high number of cycle accidents in the past.

SmartBike, a bike sharing company, alone has 2,500 public bicycles with 310 docking stations in Chandigarh, and is running its operations in collaboration with the municipal corporation. “On a good day, 2,200-2,500 rides are clocked at a moment,” said Anindita Mitra, municipal commissioner of Chandigarh. “Encouraged by the response, we are planning to increase the number of bicycles to 5,000 and docking stations to 617.”

Finding the money

Metro rail networks have made docking stations for public bikes a common sight in other cities, too. The Metro Rail Policy 2017 had also called for public bike sharing (PBS) stations as a way to expand feeder services. But low rental fees and high capex requirements have been a dampener.

Shreyansh Shah, associate director at MYBYK, an app-based bicycle-sharing service, called for the government to bear the capex, treating PBS as an extension of public transport. If that happens, “we are ready to take revenue risks for 5-7 years of the project”, he said.

However, the government may not be on board. Kunal Kumar, joint secretary at Smart Cities Mission, said PBS would become viable only when cycling becomes a popular choice. “[Greater] demand for cycling, and not a risk-free model, is the way,” he said.

PBS companies are exploring alternative options, including funds under the National Clean Air Programme, for which some cities have shown interest, said Shah.

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Cars vs cycles

People, not vehicles, must be the focus of road space, says the National Urban Transport Policy. However, roads in India typically follow the reverse hierarchy order. A bus carrying 20 times more passengers than a private car takes just 2.5 times the space. Yet, the space occupied by cars on Indian roads has grown rapidly, wiping off bicycles along the way.

Congestion pricing on private vehicles could free up space for others, including bicycles. Parking spaces in Indian cities are also an inefficient use of real estate, with their minuscule parking fees. The same spaces could be utilized to build bicycle parking stations or drinking water and resting stations for cyclists, experts say.

However, such solutions are “easier said than done”, said Kumar. “European cities that have such policies in place have reached there after decades of efforts,” said Kumar. The solution is multimodal, and the focus should be to expand the choice set for commuters and let them decide, he added.

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