Our public life is full of vacuous gestures that seek to define public good. The rise of the elite-class bicycle as a symbol of mass welfare is the latest in the addled and self-serving history of "ordinariness" in the republic.

Over the past few years, the sports bicycle with bells and whistles, and its rider, whose riding gear might cost more than a month’s salary paid to a professional car driver, have become icons of an urban renewal movement. We so perfectly walk in the footsteps of meanings borrowed from elsewhere that we erase our own imprints. Does the fancy bicycle – the kind sported by Arvind Kejriwal in his Dussehra Car Free Day ride in Delhi –  hold the key to a improved urban environment, characterised by reduced pollution levels and more importantly, ease of access for the city’s most disadvantaged populations? Far from it. For, even our gimmicks are of the cruelest kind.

The car and culture

In the West, the bicycle became acceptable as a symbol of environmental responsibility after the age of mass consumption had satiated ordinary appetites. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, it was not the bicycle that was seen to epitomise American life, but rather the petrol-guzzling motor car. It iconised American life itself. The massive expansion of American suburban localities and shopping malls were premised on the easy availability of that cornerstone of US foreign policy, gasoline, and the fundamental grounds of American existential life, the car.

The car symbolised what it meant to be modern, powerful and American. Their popular culture is in great parts a paean to the car. Ranging from songs about carefree youthfulness (Aretha Franklin’s Pink Cadillac), sexual metaphors (Wilson Picketts’ Mustang Sally), to sentiments of national loss (Don Mclean driving his Chevy in American Pie). One of the most environmentally destructive forces of modern life has been the grist for a great deal of American cultural life.

The car is aspirational. It is unstoppable as an object of desire until a point where it no longer retains that quality for a particular society. We are at the beginning of that road to desire. And, curiously enough, the sports bicycle is part of the same structure of desire. The emerging bicycle culture – that which is being promoted as good for the environment – is part of the same cycle of consumption that includes the SUV. It has little connection either with genuine environmental concern or with comfortable and economical transportation.

An object of leisure

Let’s begin with a simple fact: there are two kinds of bicycle users in our cities – those who have no choice but to use it as a means of transport and others for whom it is a form of leisure (and cultural capital). It is, of course, good to promote greater bicycle usage, but why make it stand for the common good? It is reasonable to ask whether those who are forced to use bicycles as a means of transport would really prefer this mode in a city of such extreme temperatures, pollution, distances and sheer riskiness of everyday traffic.

It may well be – as is sometimes suggested – that for many of the well-off, the average daily journey is of a cycling distance. However, this is extremely unlikely to translate into bicycle use to cover that distance. The degraded nature of our cities and the aspirational nature of the car will mean that only those who must do so will use the bicycle to get to work or do their shopping. The others will hop into their cars and, on many other occasions, load their sports bicycles onto their cars and SUVs and head for the nearest biking spot.

It is extremely unlikely that riding bicycles among the middle-classes is ever likely to be anything more than a leisure and lifestyle activity. It is not the bicycle that ought to be the symbol of urban renewal but, rather, various means of public transport. To think otherwise is nothing more than a cruel joke upon the nature of inequality and aspirations.

The poor don't have a choice

Our cities are increasingly characterised by processes of "beautification", where the poor are removed from their places of residence that are close to their places of work and shifted to the urban periphery. When the Nangla Machi slum cluster near Pragati Maidan in central Delhi was demolished in 2006, those of its residents who became entitled to an alternative plot of land were shifted to the resettlement colony of Savda Ghevda about 35 kilometres away on the Delhi-Rohtak highway.

There are few employment opportunities in the Savda Ghevda area and those who wish to work must travel into Delhi. Their most focused vision of the city is reliable, comfortable and economical public transport. Unlike the aerodynamic helmet-wearing bikers who can be seen chatting to Arvind Kejriwal in the Dussehra day media images, bicycles are the unavoidable symbols of a miserable life. The residents of Savda-Ghevda want better public transport and would just as quickly abandon the bicycle as a means of transport.

The rich are unlikely to use it as a regular means of transport, why should the poor be expected to? Why should we use bicycle rallies to symbolise the public good? It is, at best, a mindless effort at presenting our cities as "global" – Delhi can be Amsterdam – and, at worst, panders to the already skewed understanding of rights to the city.

Symbol of hierarchy

When used to promote urban well-being, the sports bicycle represents a form of forgetting: lack of thought about urban inequalities, unequal distribution of resources, the continuing hold of the car as a symbol of hierarchy and the fate of those who do not have access to cars or other means of comfortable transport. This is not to say that the bicycle as an instrument of leisure ought to be discouraged. Rather, we should recognise it for what it is.

It cannot, however, come to stand for an entire way of life of a city. The key point is this: resources that might otherwise be used for expanding the public transport network should not be used for building bicycle paths for the well-off. This is a misunderstanding – wilful or otherwise – of the nature of urban life. "Car free" days appeal to those who are comfortable in the knowledge that they can go back to their cars on the other days. They provide little succour to those who have only bicycles to fall back on. Our urban mentality is deeply anti-public transport, since it is generally exclusivist. The sports bicycle as a symbol of a desirable form of urban life is the surreptitious installation of exclusivism in another form.

Sanjay Srivastava is the author of Entangled Urbanism.

This article first appeared on kafila.org