IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE. PUTTING OXYGEN BACK TO LIFE
I pushed hard on the brakes of my bicycle, as the SUV next to me decided to swerve all of a sudden towards the right and change the lane. Dumbfounded, I was left to gasp till I regained my nerves to start pedaling again. As I wiped off the sweat from my brow, I observed with awe, the numerous cars and motored two wheelers lined up in tandem, waiting for the signal to go green.
The IT capital of the nation was gearing itself up for a busy day ahead in air-conditioned workspaces, even when it was barely an hour after sunrise and I was returning after treading the contours of the city?s urban landscape on my bicycle.My experiences of travelling around the city amidst impatient drivers of cars and busy riders of fast motorbikes for the past few months have made me realize how much of an unaffordable luxury it has become for those who love to pedal their vehicles, to pursue their passion of taking a carefree, exhilarating joyride in the city or even it?s outskirts at the early hours of the day, let alone the time when the city traffic busies itself with people meaning business.
Later in the day, I discovered that my views are echoed by other enthusiasts of the same passion all over the country. Online forums teemed with complaints of bikers, ranging from lack of decent equipment, overpriced accessories, and above all, a complete absence of roads in their respective cities where it is safe to pedal away your vehicle for kilometers. Bikes and their riders, it seems, are literally being pushed to the edge by their motorized counterparts on the Indian roads, even as the rest of the world is moving ahead in embracing this eco-friendly and health promoting form of travel, including many in top-notch cities like Paris in France and Vienna in Austria who have moved a step ahead and introduced bicycle sharing systems in the city, allowing commuters to easily access the pedals and wheels while on the move. Not to mention, the biking lanes where commuters can safely travel on bicycles without worrying about constantly honking cars and speeding motorbikes.
A mayor of a prominent French city once reckoned that the cities of the world are divided into two categories, those that have embraced bicycles and the ones wanting to do the same. Indian cities, however, are neither of the two.The glamouring bicycle riders here belong to a helpless minority who are jostling for inches of road space, dominated by smoke belching cars and motorcycles. Bicycle enthusiasts are looked upon as people with a fancy hobby, weird helmet-donning creatures who can afford exorbitantly priced bicycles (decent imported bicycles cost a bomb in the country, thanks to government regulations and high import duties on parts or whole bikes), which their doodhwala rides as well but that costs only a dime. This attitude has only deferred the acceptance of bicycles as a realistic commuting medium in cities. To add even more, cars symbolise status amidst the Indian middle class and the ability to own one is a matter of pride. The motorbike stands for the ?coolness? factor and is the dream buy of every Indian youth. The bicycle is sidelined as a poor man?s vehicle, meant to be ridden by people who can?t afford either of the previous or for kids who are still not licensed to drive other vehicles. Sadly though.
And this is where we lose to our European and American counterparts again. They have their Lance Armstrongs and Miguel Indurains, legends of the sport (yes, bicycling is indeed a sport with considerable respect and fan following) of bicycling, to keep them motivated, interested and not to mention, give it the due status of a respectable sport and people pursuing those, of athletes. Pitiably, nothing as such in India, where bicycling is taking only toddler steps as late as now, with barely a few marathons being organised in a few cities and a few stores stocking up decent bicycles and accessories, albeit at a price point that?s enough to run shivers down the spine of an already discouraged urban Indian middle class. Not to mention, the strategy of our finance ministry which has increased the tax on imported bikes and parts to a whopping 30% from an earlier 10%, thereby radically increasing the cost of good quality bicycles. Add this to the fact that people with a flair for and decent knowledge about the sport say that cycles and equipment manufactured in the country are of poor standard and the scenario looks even more dismal.
However, bicycles are a popular form of commute for rural Indians and if data is to be believed, Indians cover more distance on bicycles than the countries that have embraced bicycling. But this fact has limited itself only to rural or semi-urban areas, providing no improvement in the menace of pollution and car crowd in cities, which could have been curbed by accepting bicycles as a realistic, safe and healthy form of transport. Not to mention, if such a thing happens in the near future, it will as well ease the woes of ever-rising fuel prices besides helping riders shed those extra calories while pedalling to their destination. And as the average trip length in an Indian city is of the range of 5 km, bicycles are the most suited vehicles for such communication, a fact blissfully ignored by our government and people alike. And a change, if incorporated in our transport system, will help us reduce millions of tonnes of emitted carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; a hazard about which millions complain and few do anything substantial about.
Asian cities have started promoting the bike culture like the European ones, like Hangzhou in China with a huge network of shared bikes. Vélib?, the ubiquitous bike sharing system in Paris, that has seen phenomenal success and viral copying in other European cities, has now caught the attention of Indians as well. A bicycle sharing network system, christened as Atcag, is seeing promotion and a good number of takers in Bangalore. Similar systems are thought to be started in metros like Delhi and Mumbai as well.
Perhaps, it?s time and in the best of our interests that we start eyeing the pedals and wheels with due respect. But a note needs to be added as well. Indians behind steering wheels are infamously impatient and with no roads or lanes dedicated to bicycles, the safety of people using them is naturally jeopardized. Added to this is the headache of unavailability of parking spaces for bicycles in any public place. But issues as these might well be expected to be resolved with an increase in the number of bicycles on our roads. And the sooner it happens, the better it is for the best of our interests.
By Saptadip Saha
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