It is a common sight to see cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles jostling for space on the narrow streets of small Indian cities. While there is a popular notion that these cities are trying to replicate the mobility pattern of bigger cities, data tells a different story.

While global cities are aiming to increase cycle share to 10%-15%, smaller Indian cities have already achieved it. However, their efforts go largely unrecognised. Compared to cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi, where non-motorised transport accounts for 35%-37% of the total trips, the non-motorised transport share in Indore and Ranchi is close to 50% of the total trips by the working-class population.

Smaller cities, with a smaller spread, see shorter trip lengths that mostly get covered on foot, on a cycle or on a two-wheeler. In contrast, bigger cities are more reliant on two-wheelers, four-wheelers and public transport. One example of a small city getting it right is Ranchi – making for an interesting case study that other cities can emulate.

Who cycles in Ranchi?

Ranchi is the economic, educational and administrative hub of Jharkhand, attracting job seekers from the nearby towns and villages. For over two decades, this floating crowd, constrained by their pocket and lack of choice, has mostly been pedalling in and around the city.

The census data shows that 50% of the households in the city owned a bicycle in 2011. Add to this the new-age range of recreational cyclists seeking to get fit and/or explore the city on the saddle and the numbers only get further boosted. Furthermore, the pandemic has also seen a renewed interest in cycling in the city – as is the case across cities in India.

Source: Census of India, 2011. Visualisation: WRI India
Source: Census of India, 2011. Visualisation: WRI India

Initiatives accelerated change

Ranchi did not witness any significant infrastructural additions for the city’s cyclists up till recently. In 2016, the dialogue around active mobility changed following Ranchi’s inclusion in the Smart Cities Challenge. Ranchi’s gradual, but efficient, infrastructure building over the last five years has allowed it to better understand the demands of its citizens.

Some key initiatives adopted by the city include:

  • Raahgiri Day: A monthly “Vehicle Free Day” or “Raahgiri Day” held between 2017-’19, provided a space for bicycle enthusiasts to get back on the saddle. The initiative looked at the promotion of sustainable transport, encouraging physical activitiessocial inclusion and road safety awarenessSanjeev Vijayvargia, deputy mayor of Ranchi, who initiated Raahgiri Day here said, “The campaign worked to motivate and inspire people, and the result is evident even today as we see people cycling in the morning to keep themselves healthy. The city administration’s resolve is to take this campaign forward.”
  • Public bicycle sharing system: Raahgiri Day was followed by the launch of a public bicycle sharing system in 2019 as part of the city’s Smart City project. To avoid the hassle of maintaining a cycle, the city launched the public bicycle sharing system with 600 cycles and 60 docking stations in phase 1. The system has been designed to provide first and last-mile solutions, or the modes of transport available for the first and last leg of a commuter’s journey. This year, the city will launch phase 2 – which includes providing another 600 bicycles across 60 new dock stations.
  • National programs and local campaigns: Ranchi was identified under the National Clean Air Programme as one of the 122 non-attainment cities that are required to create an action plan to reduce air pollution by 20% in 2024. The Ranchi Municipal Corporation and Ranchi Smart City Limited, thus, launched a weekly campaign, #ShanivarNoCar (No car on Saturdays) on March 15. Ranchi Municipal Commissioner, Mukesh Kumar said, “Ditching vehicles for a day gives people the chance to experience cycling, and promote sustainable mobility. With just three weeks into the campaign, PBS ridership increased rapidly.”
Public bicycle sharing system has been picking up in Ranchi. Photo credit: Chartered bike, Ranchi
The #ShanivarNoCar poster. Photo credit: Chartered bike, Ranchi

According to data accessed by the authors, public bicycle sharing rentals increased by 56% in March 2021 as compared to March 2020. The city also saw a 33% increase in rentals between February-March this year.

Cycles are now more noticeable on the streets of Ranchi than ever before. The incremental infrastructural development around cycling has been supported by local leaders and bureaucrats. Furthermore, different non-government organisations and cycling clubs have been promoting cycling in the city. Also, local food delivery partners have provided the flexibility of cycle-based delivery in the city.

Supporting local champions

Along with providing an array of options to support cycling, Tier II and Tier III cities are offering space for experimentation and inclusion. At least 18%-20% of the total work-based trips in smaller cities are on bicycles, making their inclusion in the city’s development process a necessity. This can be achieved by modifying the city’s urban planning and transportation policy framework with an emphasis on advocacy. The city can also consider incorporating global best practices such as mapping weather patterns, user type, street type and urban form appealing to a larger spectrum of potential bicycle users.

Smaller cities like Ranchi, Indore, Pimpri Chinchwad, Bhopal, Surat, Jaipur and Guwahati have bicycling advocates at all levels, but their efforts go unnoticed. In the last few years, Ranchi has taken critical and innovative steps that can be adopted locally by the bigger cities that are looking at turning to cycling for transport. It is important to leverage this momentum towards cycling and embrace it for the myriad benefits it offers.

Swarna Dutt is a Project Associate and Azra Khan is a Manager, Sustainable Cities and Transport at the World Resources Institute India Ross Centre. Views expressed in this article are personal.