Cycling to the ultimate mobility solution

Will driving a car one day become as unacceptable as smoking? It seems highly unlikely but it was exactly this comparison that the vice-mayor of Oslo, Hanna Elise Marcussen made in a comment to the New York Times. “Today, very few would do that. I think it’s the same with cars in the city center.”

Oslo may have taken its car-free policies the furthest, but it is hardly an outlier. Across Europe, the entry of cars into key areas of main cities are becoming increasingly restricted. Madrid has barred all non-residents’ cars from its city centre — a policy that is likely to be rolled out across the rest of Spain. Other cities are planning a heavy crackdown on vehicles which violate pollution emission norms which are even stricter than European Union guidelines. 

Enter the humble Bicycle. Even apart from its obvious benefits as a means of transport which has no dependence on fossil fuels and has zero emissions, it has huge social benefits. Government programmes giving free bicycles to girls have played an important role in ensuring higher female enrolment, not just in India but around the world. While Bihar’s scheme of giving cycles to schoolgirls is famous, West Bengal has gone one step further and offered cycles to all students of class X to XII in government schools across the state. 

The economic benefits of expanding cycle use are huge. Those who live in remote areas can more easily reach markets and other economic centres to sell agri produce or do other kinds of business. They are no longer limited to immediate local areas.

The economic benefits of expanding cycle use are huge. Those who live in remote areas can more easily reach markets and other economic centres to sell agri produce or do other kinds of business
Yet in India, bicycles are becoming less important as a means of transportation, not more. As a report by TERI released last year (2018) pointed out, bicycles as a form of transport are increasingly becoming the domain of only poor households who cannot afford any other means of mobility. Between 2001-2011, the share of households owning bicycles increased only by 1 per cent to about 45 per cent; in urban areas they actually declined, even as some low income households shifted to using motorised two-wheelers which became more affordable.  

There are two ways to increase cycle use — getting commuters who currently use motorised two-wheelers to use cycles, and getting those who walk to work, to switch to using cycles. In rural areas, even now, 49 per cent of workers who travel upto 10 kilometre for work, do so on foot. In urban areas, that number is 39 per cent. The TERI report, which was supported by the All India Cycle Manufacturers Association, estimates that if half of such commuters could be induced to shift to bicycles, the annual benefits to the economy could be of the order of Rs 11,200 crore. A further Rs 1.43 trillion of benefits would be gained by getting two- and three-wheeler owners to shift to cycles. Total benefits of such shift in use — from fuel savings, to improved health to reduced air pollution to improved economic activity, would be of the order of about Rs 1.8 trillion, according to TERI. This is equivalent to 1.6 per cent of GDP. 

But major obstacles lie in the way of getting commuters to make such a shift. The TERI report highlights concerns such as the simple fact that urban transport infrastructure, with its lack of cycle lanes and its focus on accommodating motorised transport, is simply not friendly toward cycles. In rural areas, there is a deeper problem. Jagdish Khattar, ex-MD of Maruti, has recently become a cycle-evangelist. He pointed out in a recent interview, even though a cycle may cost as little as Rs 3000-5000, it still represents a major expense for a person who makes no more than Rs 100 a day. Because of the small ticket size, the financing that banks are so willing to give for two-wheelers and motorcycles, are not available for cycles. Enabling cheap loans, or subsidies, for the purchase of cycles could go a long way toward enlarging the pool of commuters who cycle to work. 

There is another way to break the cost barrier and that is through bike rentals or sharing. Bike sharing schemes have been implemented in cities across the world, including India. Here, however, they remain limited to a few metros and even within those cities, remain confined to specific areas, limiting their usefulness to commuters.

But what if an imaginative government or entrepreneur could implement bike rental schemes in remote rural areas for people who really need it to travel and do business? Such schemes would then, over time, come to be seen as an essential part of the local rural economy. Much is made of the ‘sharing’ economy and companies such as Uber and Airbnb have built huge businesses around it, but it may well be the bike sharing economy which will have the longest and healthiest impact on the Indian economy.

Vinayak Chatterjee is the Chairman of Feedback Infra

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