Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Resurrecting the humble bike

The ‘2008 Oil shock’ has helped resurrect the humble bicycle, curiously, at the hands of our hypocritical politicians. Providing them photo-ops, it has given them an occasion to display their non-existent closeness with the aam aadmi. Soon after the recent steep petrol/diesel price hike, Shiv Raj Singh Chowhan, Chief Minister of MP, acquired a bike at government expense and pedalled up the Arera Hill of Bhopal to the Secretariat. Not to be outdone by their chief, a few more ministers, along with their side-kicks, huffed and puffed their way up the next day.

Essentially a gimmick, as none has surrendered the allotted fleet of automobiles, the crass act ended up trivialising a dire need – that of converting once again the bicycle as one of the mainstays of urban transport. That it is largely carbon-neutral would be stating the obvious. We, however, seem to have given it up altogether. Time was when we were basically a biking nation. After Independence there was a veritable bicycle revolution and every middle-class home used to own a bike. Even villagers, those who could afford, would pedal down the country roads. In the cities it was the vehicle of the masses. Poona, now Pune, was where swarms of cyclists were a common sight. Everywhere, schools, colleges and offices used to have cycle-stands and the students/staff unions used to fight the administration for sheds over them. The stands today have become extinct as the bicycle itself has become an endangered species, having been pushed aside by its self-propelling, more powerful and expensive, albeit polluting, avatar. Like the bicycle revolution of yore, we are now in the midst of a motorised two and four-wheeler revolution. Middle-class households generally have both; the good-old pedal-bike being seldom in their reckoning. Motorised two-wheelers are common in villages and urban jhuggies. It is a dangerous trend. Bicycles in Beijing used to be ubiquitous. With greater prosperity people took to cars and look what happened! Beijing ended up with the sobriquet of “the air-pollution capital of the world”.

But, bicycles are coming back all over the world in a big way. The global warming-induced climate-change has done the trick. Naturalists, environmental activists and cycling aficionados are reviving the humble bike everywhere. The “Critical Mass”, a group of cyclists of the US Bay Area, has spawned “The Raging Cyclists” in Santiago, Chile. Similar groups have taken off in Canada, Europe and Australia.

Promoting the bike as a clean and efficient alternative to the personal automobile is a practical way for cities to reduce traffic congestion and smog. A number of European cities have set the standard for bicycle use and promotion, via pro-bike transportation and land use policies, as well as heavy funding for bicycle infrastructure and public education. In Copenhagen, for example, 36 percent of commuters bike to work. The city plans to invest more than $200 million in bike facilities between 2006. Amsterdam has always been a biking city.

Governments elsewhere are following Europe’s lead. In November 2007, South Korea announced a new pro-bike campaign, expanding its bicycle infrastructure to substantially increase bike ownership by 2015. Mexico City, using promotional campaigns, plans to have 5 percent of all trips to be by bikes in 2012, up from less than 2 percent today. In the US, aided by $900 million a year in federal funding for promotion of biking for 2005 to 2009, the bicycle facilities are being put in place apace. The US is also working on an inter-city National Bicycle Greenway.

No such initiative is, however, noticeable in this country, barring in New Delhi where the new Master Plan proposes “fully segregated” bicycle tracks along all arterial roads. It does not talk of any other bicycle infrastructural items. Now that the oil prices have gone through the roof and climate-change is closing in, concerned and sensitive citizens in this country need to persuade their local bodies to provide necessary facilities for the untrammelled use of bikes. More importantly, they have to launch educational campaigns to bring home to every one – young and old, rich and poor – the virtues of the use of the humble bike
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