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Burn fat, not oil

Cycling is a way of life in Europe, while a nightmare in Delhi – it will require a change of attitude, awareness and segregated lanes to make cycling a safe mode of personal transport

Anyone who’s travelled or lived in Europe — in the bigger cities like Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, Helsinki, Amsterdam or a host of smaller cities like Greifswald or Leipzig — would be convinced the best way to commute in a city is to ride a cycle. The way these cities have adopted cycle as a healthy, environment-friendly and fundamental mode of personal transport, one thing is very clear: Though technology has overwhelmed our lives, it has not been able to diminish the utility or found a better substitute for a few things in the last 100 years – and the cycle is one of them.

These cities have designated cycle lanes that are sacrosanct, with even pedestrians not being allowed in them. And in the larger scheme of integrated public transport, cycles are a priority. People may argue that cycles are slower and might not be suitable for long distances, therefore Metro and even buses allow people to commute with their cycles. That, to a great extent, takes care of last mile connectivity, which is an issue we are grappling with in Delhi.

Cycles, though they seem a primordial mode of transportation, can be fairly expensive—costing in excess of 10,000 euro or Rs 8 lakh. There’s one for every need, even a folding one which you can carry in a sling bag; others come with attachments to enable parents to safely commute with their babies.

Paavo Yuliloma of Helsinki changes one of his two cycles every year, in order to find a cycle that best suits his needs. Finally, he’s found one all-terrain bike with carbon frame — light and sturdy — for 1,300 euro (about a lakh of rupees). “A good cycle is very important to me. I spend a couple of hours riding it on a working day,” he says.

Andreas Schneider delivers letters riding his racing bike in Leipzig apart from a job in the local university. He likes to transverse long distances across Europe on cycle, his way of enjoying holidays. Like many serious cyclists, Paavo and Andreas feels it’s an extension of self.  Cycle are integral to people’s day-to-day life, and age is no bar. With the introduction of battery cycles that makes riding almost effortless, cycles are gaining popularity amongst older people as well.

This may seem a fairy tale compared to cycling in Delhi. Though thousands of people commute to work on cycle in Delhi – 11% of the working population — for them it’s not a matter of choice. Daily wage earners, vendors, hawkers and peddlers, peons, factory workers commute for long distances as most of them cannot afford any other means of transport. But those who can afford, shun cycling for it’s risky and hazardous to health given the high levels of air pollution. Facts and figures point to the fact that safety is a matter of grave concern. As there no cycling lanes, 88% of cyclists getting killed in crashes with four-wheelers are male; nearly three-quarters of cyclists die in urban areas.

Having said that, one-third of the households in Delhi own a cycle as per Census 2011 and there are scores of cycling clubs and groups that undertake cycling trips. But that’s more like an adventure sport or for health reasons or for sheer love of cycling, but hardly ever as a viable mode of transportation. Prashant Negi, in his early 40s, is the joint director of the Centre for Distance and Open Learning at Jamia Milia Islamia. He has been cycling “solo in and around Delhi for about 10 years.” He begins talking about cycling in Delhi by saying it’s “is a class thing.” He feels the situation has “greatly improved” over the years, for he felt during the early days “Delhi was not ready for cyclists.”

What hasn’t changed in the last decade or so, as Negi points out, is “the mindset and the general prejudice against cycling, which emanates from the activities equated with class.” But Negi is hopeful, though it would need something akin to a social revolution to reach the acceptance level of a European city. “The benefits of cycling—health, sustainability, and others—should be pitched along with creation of dedicated infrastructure for cycle’s enhanced usage and adaptability,” he adds.

There are certain inherent disadvantages apart from what Negi calls is “general prejudice against cycles”. In Delhi there some insurmountable hurdles to making cycling a preferred mode of personal transport. Pollution, population, weather—six months of the year it’s too hot to cycle to work unless one wants to arrive at work in a sweat-drenched shirt. Besides, Delhi is humongously big, and Metro doesn’t allow commuters to take their cycle along. Safety is an issue, as there’s no segregation of traffic. These factors make cycling a risky preposition.

Not all are convinced. Jan Peters of Germany, an environmentalist who lived in Delhi for six months, would commute to work on cycle every day, from CR Park to Africa Avenue, a distance of about 10 km. He’d be riding his cycle on the busy outer Ring Road. “One of the first things I purchased in Delhi was a cycle. I like the old-fashioned Indian cycle. It gave me a sense of freedom to move around and I didn’t have to deal with auto-rickshawallahs.”

He’d ride on the service lanes if could escape the main road but wouldn’t avoid the flyovers. “There were big trucks and buses and the drivers don’t care for the cyclists—they don’t treat them as equals on the road,” he says. That’s quite in contrast to the situation in Europe where cyclists and pedestrians get due respect from guilt-stricken car drivers. Peters takes pride in describing that he was the only one moving when there was a traffic jam, to the consternation of many who were stuck inside their luxury sedans.

Peters was in India during the relatively cooler months of the year so he didn’t have to deal with Delhi’s oppressive heat. “Pollution and heat would be a concern if I had lived longer in Delhi,” he concedes. But he also stresses the point Delhi’s negative attitude to cycling is what contributes to growing levels of pollution. He draws satisfaction from the fact that “at least I didn’t add to the pollution.”

As for size, he doesn’t agree that Delhi is too big for cycling to be a conducive option. “Copenhagen has cycling highways and people commute on a daily basis from neighbouring cities,” Peters is quick to counter.

Delhi has tried in the past to encourage cycling like the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System, a joint venture between Delhi government and IDFC. But without a change of attitude and segregated lanes to make cycling a safe mode of personal transport, it was a dismal failure. Cycling in Delhi is best an adventure sport or just a fad.