Cars versus cycle
On Tuesday, while on my way back from Gurgaon, I was witness to an unfortunate accident between a cyclist and a burly Audi Q7 right before the toll gate on the Expressway. Thankfully, besides the fact that the cycle was reduced to a mangled heap, no major harm was done and the cyclist Satpal Singh, was rather more shaken than injured.
There could have been a case of overspeeding by the SUV but ironically, it got scot free. The reason : cycles are not allowed on expressways like the one in Gurgaon or the Delhi Noida highway. Which got me thinking whether the world’s sixth largest car market has successfully sidelined the world’s second largest cycle industry?
Today, we produce over 10 million cycles a year, that is roughly four times as many cars that we produce annually. Even then it is safe to say that the days when adoloscents dreamt of owning a Hero cycle, BSA, Atlas or Avon is long gone, replaced by either a Pulsar or CBZ or maybe in cities like Delhi and Bombay by Hondas and Toyotas. As such it was evident, that the demand for cycles as compared to mobikes and cars would struggle and stutter. As it has.
But the latest trend of having cycle free toll ways in a country like India is disconcerting. To force Satpal Singh, the cyclist who almost came under the Audi, to take a long detour when he wanted to get to Rajokri from Iffco Chowk on the pretext that the new road is meant for machines, is elitist and unfair.
Yes, cycles on a high speed expressway is a nuisance and nowehere in the world are they allowed to rub shoulders with cars and SUVs. But no other country witnesses such disparity of wealth too, neither do other countries have these many cyclists. The simple, if not a populist solution would be to create space for both, the way it is done in US, Europe, Australia and Japan.
Dedicated lanes for cycles
Many big cities have successfully experimented with this and thanks to commonwealth games and the BRT corridors, there has been a start in Delhi as well. A trip to the nether side of yamuna would reveal a cute little network of cycling lanes. Similarly the BRT corridor in the heart of the capital’s wealth bowl–South Delhi, also has a dedicated lane for the not so privileged. A concerted move has also been made towards encouraging the use of cycles in places like Connaught Place and Paharganj where stands that rent cycles on an hourly basis have come up outside metro stations.
These endeavours have however met with a rather cold reception. The cycles for rent on the stands are rusting and gathering dust. A few of them have already been shut down. The lanes near the games village are largely unutilised that must have got some car lovers to think that it should not have been built in the first place.
The reason for this largely is because it is inadequate and not enough to force people to shift to cycling from the cold comfort of their cars. Staying in Mayur Vihar, I often cycle for a kilometer or two on these lanes and I admit it is absolutely a dream to pedal around without worrying about somebody bumping you off from behind.
At times I am even tempted to go the whole distance and start commuting the 12 kilometers to my office in CP on cycle, but that is always fraught with danger. The dedicate lane network does not stretch beyond the bridge, which basically means anybody who is in love with himself will not cross that line.
It has worked elsewhere
But in US and Europe, much to the chagrin of motorists, the humble cycle has worked and is back in vogue. In US for example, since 2001, the number of total bike trips has increased by more than 20%. While the levels of recreation bicycling trips remained steady, the share of bike trips taken for the purposes of commuting to work has increased by a third.
And that has happened because lanes have increased and a proactive decision was taken by many city and state councils to make the streets safer for cycling. At the same time, allowing cyclists their space on a busy street also makes it safer for those on foot as well.
So it is really a zero sum game but one that we have not started playing in India yet. Which again is tragic in a country that has the highest number of deaths of the road even though the car park is way less than many other smaller but well managed countries.
The reasons for their popularity in the West is different from India. Cycle is seen as a green transport vehicle, a cheaper mode of transport and one that is a good exercise as well. All of it put together gives users bragging rights. In India, cycle is used mostly by the have nots for want of a better vehicle. And no Nano has been devised for this segment as yet.
Even as I remain an avid lover of cars, I think it will be preposterous to believe cycles dont have the right of way on the street. In a welfare society like ours it makes even more sense that we give Satpal Singh a chance and not allow him to be crushed under the wheels of a SUV.
Maybe arresting their slide could be the first step towards reforming our non existent sense of discipline on the road. Even if cars seem to be winning, we have to turn the cycle around. Both should coexist, somehow.