My driver who doesn’t live too far from my home used a bicycle for his daily commute. He owned a cycle for many years and with no extra expense on travelling, he could save up some money.
Three years back, he asked for a loan to buy a motorcycle. This came after a near-death experience on the National Highway-24 when a lorry grazed him. It was a narrow escape.
For millions like my driver, cycling is not just a healthy or green choice but an economic compulsion. Yet, it took an accident involving an environmentalist to make the cyclist’s woes to make headlines.
Last week, Sunita Narain was hit by an unknown vehicle when she was cycling to Lodhi Gardens. She is now recuperating in a hospital.
Till October 15 this year, 67 cyclists died on Delhi roads. 89 died in the corresponding period last year. Cyclists and pedestrians are the most vulnerable section of commuters on Delhi roads.
For a city that is notoriously called the “car capital’ of India, Delhi records three million cycle journeys every day — almost as many as car trips. Surveys show there are more people walking and cycling on Delhi roads but it is the minority of motorized vehicle users who call the shots.
The city claims to have 100-kms of cycle track, running along some arterial roads. But these disconnected pathways with no kerbed ramps or blended crossings, lead to nowhere. At the BRT stretch in South Delhi, two-wheelers, auto-rickshaws and small cars constantly edge out cyclists.
In the rest of the city, pavements that can double as cycle tracks have been encroached by shop owners, vendors and the parking mafia.
Building and maintaining cycle tracks are the cheapest investment a government can make. Yet, public funds are invested solely on increasing road space to decongest the vehicular traffic.
But new roads end up attracting more cars. With 21% of open space already being used up for creating road network, Delhi can’t expand beyond its physical limits.
London, the oldest of mega cities, hit that limit years back when its underground network covered all possible corners of the city. But the growing population required that Londoners push the boundaries of modern infrastructure. So mayor Boris Johnson simply returned to the basic: paddle power.
Why only London, cycling is the latest short-distance solution for urban transportation across the world. According to a study by the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, over 500 cities in 51 countries were running the shared bicycle schemes with a combined fleet of half a million cycles.
Italy and Spain have the highest number of such schemes while China is home to two thirds of the global shared bike fleet.
Even the otherwise bicycle-unfriendly USA has 34 schemes that allow riders to easily make short trips on two wheels without having to own a bicycle.
Safety of cyclists is a big concern, even in these countries. Last month, under measures to cut the number of cyclist deaths, the London mayor announced a fine of £200 to be imposed on lorry drivers whose vehicles were not fitted with side guards to prevent cyclists being crushed under the rear wheels.
Besides, traffic flow of 500 junctions that were prone to cycle accidents has already been reviewed.
In Delhi, there are plans and laws to protect cyclists and their space. But even the measly `100 fine for entering a cycle lane has rarely been enforced. Similarly, no efforts have been made to free pavements and cycle tracks of encroachments, another punishable offence but rarely enforced.
Perhaps the capital’s cyclists should still be thankful to the government for not going the Kolkata way and ban cycling altogether.