Hindustan Times: "Bicycle sales ride on safety and health concerns"

June 16, 2020

In some ways, the cycle is the vehicle of the lockdown. There are countless tales of stranded migrant workers cycling hundreds of kilometres back home in the absence of public transport. It’s everyone’s favourite way of getting fit. And for those who can’t afford a car or a motorcycle, it is a great way to get around a city that still doesn’t see as much traffic as it used to.

Dhruv Karan Mehta, who recently formed a cycling group, said the pandemic has helped many like him rediscover the joys of cycling. “I had a cycle which remained unused for a decade, and during the [Covid-19] lockdown, I started using it to get around my neighbourhood to buy essentials. It was such a great experience cycling on empty roads and I shared my cycling stories on social media,” said Mehta, a Defence Colony resident. “Some of those who followed my posts expressed interest in buying cycles and forming a cycling group. About eight of us recently bought new cycles and I now use only my cycle for short commutes.”

Anant Rishi, a businessman in Sarvodya Enclave, recently bought two cycles–one for himself and another for his wife . “Now even my wife and father have become avid bikers. My gym is closed but I cycle 60 km every alternate morning,” said Rishi.

As many as 30.6% of Delhi households owned a bicycle, and about 11% of the working population cycled to work, according to the 2011 census.

Many believe the sudden interest in cycling can help make Delhi a more bike-friendly city. “The government should use this growing enthusiasm for cycles during the pandemic to prioritise development of cycling infrastructure in the city, something it has been talking about for many years now,” said Rajendra Ravi, founder, Institute For Democracy And Sustainability, a non-government organisation, which advocates for the rights of cyclists.

Earlier this month, the Centre sent an advisory to states and Union territories, asking them to come up with short, medium and long- term plans to promote cycling and walking, among other interventions, for safe urban transit systems post-Covid-19. The advisory said cities across the world were ramping up their cycling systems in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Authorities in New York, for example, have added 64 km of new non-motorized transport (NMT) lanes. Bogota in Colombia added 76 km. Milan converted 35 km of streets into cycling lanes. In Auckland (New Zealand) on-street car parking was removed to build 17 km of temporary bike lanes.

The short-term strategy outlined in the Centre’s advisory includes creating temporary pedestrian areas, footpaths, and cycle lanes through removable barricades, tape, cones, road markings/painting, and mobile signs on identified corridors/areas. It seeks to encourage closure of one or more lanes to promote walking and cycling at a specific time or on a specific day.

Experts believe that such “tactical urbanism”, which uses short term, low-cost, and scalable interventions, is a good way to catalyse long-term change and integrate cycling into urban transport systems.

Dr. Avilash Roul, the principal scientist at Indo-German Center for Sustainability, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, said cycling can be an effective alternative to public transport in the post-Covid world. Citing Albert Einstein who once wrote “life is like riding a bicycle, to keep your balance, you must keep moving,” Roul said cities too will have to perform a balancing act for a long time to come.

“Cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai, with very high infection rates, must immediately create pop-up cycle lanes and work to develop a plan for creating cycling infrastructure. While many cities, including Delhi, set up PBS [Public Bike Sharing] systems, they failed to simultaneously create cycling infrastructure,” added Roul.

“The city governments must use this growing passion for cycling, and work with local communities to redesign roads and give a fair share to cyclists. ”

Safety is paramount, experts say.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment, cited the Census 2011 data and said nearly 48% of the daily trips in Delhi are within 5km range. “Across the world, cities have created pop-up bike lanes using bollards or markings on roads. People will switch to cycling or walking if we provide safe infrastructure to them. Cycling is a good option for people who have to travel short distances. It will also take the load off the public transport systems [that] will run on half or one-third capacity due to social distancing norms.”

Sharma is enjoying his cycling. “It takes me about 40 minutes to reach CP,” he said.

“ While it is dangerous to cycle in Delhi, at least I feel safe from the coronavirus.”

Dr. Avilash Roul (Quoted), Hindustan Times, June 16, 2020.