The current discussion over the rights of bicycle riders and the need for a more bicycle-friendly urban environment has been spurred by a tragic event. However, it ignores crucial cultural and social aspects of our everyday lives, including transportation.
We are repeatedly informed that we need to copy the example of ‘developed’ nations which have created bicycle paths and zones, as well as made it easier in other ways to use non-motorised transport.
The State is then taken to task for ‘forcing’ larger numbers of the urban population to use cars through constructing an ever proliferating network of roads and highways. If governments were to invest in safe and convenient bicycling environments, the argument goes, a larger proportion of the population would abandon cars and take to environmentally sound non-motorised transport.
This, sadly, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of contemporary life. Further, the idea of a technological fix to social aspects does very little to contribute to well-informed policy-making.
First, for most people in India riding a bicycle has little or nothing to do with environmental concerns. There are, broadly, two types of bicycle riders and neither of them has the environment in mind during their pedalling activities.
The first kind consists of the well-off which has, in the past few years, bought expensive bikes and associated equipment and can be seen, either in groups or singly, pedalling across urban spaces and highways. This is part of a lifestyle choice rather than a commitment to environmental causes.
This group has taken to bicycles after — and not instead of — fulfilling the aspiration for cars. This is the crux of the problem: cars are an aspiration and it is plain silly to suggest that government action — by building more bicycle paths — will encourage an increasing number to abandon cars. Aspirations can no more be altered through State action than rape can be prevented through passing laws.
The other — unfortunate — group that uses bicycles is the one that has no choice but to use them for all manner of needs. It is most likely that, given the choice, this group would abandon the bicycle for cars at the first opportunity. How many of us would look forward to compulsory bicycle rides to work in our climatic conditions?
And, can State action in building better bicycle paths alter our view towards bicycling as a compulsory activity? Our structure of aspirations will not allow for it. This second group does not wish for a more ‘bicycle friendly’ city but for better public transport — and better roads — that would allow it to abandon the tyranny of uncomfortable transportation that is represented by the bicycle.
Public policy — of any kind — requires that we pay attention to social and cultural complexity, rather than suggest simplistic technological fixes or unmodified importation of foreign models. Our policy landscape is littered with such experiments.
We have a situation where, on the one hand, voluntary bicycling has little or no connection with environmentalism and, on the other, the vast majority of bicycle users are forced to endure great physical discomfort and social humiliation.
Under such conditions it is foolish to think that better bicycle paths would lead to a move away from cars. If anything, it would lead to favouring the lifestyle related activities of a small section of the population that uses bicycles for leisure while simultaneously taking part in a variety of environmentally damaging activities.
This is not say that we should not demand better conditions for bicycle users. However, given prevailing social attitudes, this cannot be the answer to environmental problems. What we need is better — far better — public transport facilities, and, to cast a challenge to the bicycle-as-leisure brigade to use these and become genuinely involved in public life.
This, however, will require a great change in the way we think about social life.
Sanjay Srivastava is a professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal