In a 2013 TED talk, Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City in the United States, spoke about how the urban focus on cars was misplaced. “I came to the conclusion that Oklahoma City had built an incredible quality of life – if you happen to be a car,” Cornett quipped.
The United States is particularly enamoured of cars, even making them a part of its national culture, and Delhi it seems is trying to emulate it. The capital, more than any other Indian city, matches up to the urban sprawl of the United States. Wide roads and impressive flyovers encourage car ownership. In spite of its short term odd-even plan, it seems even the Aam Aadmi Party is mostly pro-car given that it scrapped the Bus Rapid Transport System that could have ferried thousands cheaply, quickly and cleanly (even if it would have meant a bit more traffic for the small percentage of Delhiites who happen to own automobiles). Not surprisingly, Delhi reports very high car ownership numbers: it has almost four times the number of cars as Mumbai.
This is troubling. The idea that careening hunks of metal need provide the core of our cities is an old and outdated one. The social costs of cars are being quickly recognised. Not only do automobiles pollute both the air and sound waves, they take up so much space that it imposes a steep, de-facto congestion tax on everyone else that doesn’t happen to own a car.
One solution to cars is, of course, public transport. In that regard Delhi has put its eggs in the metro basket, an expensive option: for just the year 2015-'16, the Central government will allocate a whopping Rs 4,200 for the Delhi Metro – 25% of the entire budget of the Union Ministry of Urban Development.
Another far cheaper and attractive solution is bicycling.
Cycles are inexpensive both for the individual riding them and the city, since it requires no new infrastructure, other than the demarcation of a cycling lane. It is, of course, zero pollution and – as a rather attractive cherry on the cake – it’s a great work out.
Given that cycling is such a great solution to pollution, congestion and health, pockets of the planet such as the highly developed Nordic countries have taken to it with great enthusiasm. In Copenhagen, Denmark, 45% of citizens commute to work on a cycle. Non Nordic countries are getting with the programme too: a fortnight ago, Germany launched its national network of “bike autobahns”, cycle-only highways for inter-city commuting.
Promoting the concept of cycling
Even as Europe moves onto to inter-city cycling infrastructure, Delhi needs to take the first step towards intra-city cycling arrangements. Right now, many Delhiities do cycle to work, most of them being blue-collar workers on sturdy roadsters. However, given the classist nature of our public administration, almost nothing has been done to make their cycling experience easier or – most importantly – safer. In 2014, cyclists accounted for more than 50% of traffic deaths in Delhi.
Jasbir Singh, co-founder of Pedalyatri, a Gurgaon-based cycling group and Raahgiri, a car-free pressure group, points out that safety is an urgent issue for Delhi’s cyclists. “Delhi’s roads don’t have what is the most basic safety requirement: cycling lanes,” Singh noted.
Delhi does have some cycling lanes – in itself unusual in India – but they are poorly planned, missing bollards (allowing motorbikes to use them), often encroached on by parked cars and even portacabins. Most cyclists, therefore, now share the road with motorised transport.
It isn't as if the Delhi administration is unaware of the need to promote cycling. The Delhi Development Authority has proposed a cycling-sharing scheme in Dwarka, while the Delhi Metro runs a cycle rental scheme at four stations. The odd-even plan provided a big boost to the idea, with some Delhi ministers publicly going to work on a cycle and the Delhi state government even deciding to use the fine amount collected from vehicles violating the scheme to subsidise cycles. In October, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had even led a cycle rally on the city’s first “car-free day”.
Cycling infrastructure in Delhi
But while Kejriwal’s government has put out the message that Delhiites should cycle, that’s pretty much all its done. As an urgent next step, the Delhi government should demarcate cycle lanes for safety on as many major roads as possible. A cycle lane is half as wide as a car lane and the safety it provides can encourage many more people to cycle to work. Many cities allow cycles on their metro train systems, buses and even have cabs fitted with cycle carriers. Integrating the public transit system with cycling will ensure that commuters don’t even need cars or taxis for long trips.
In addition, workplaces will also have to make adjustments. “We absolutely need companies to provide a shower and changing room for people cycling in to work,” said Supratim Sengupta, an architect who cycles to work in Delhi. “I know so many otherwise avid cyclists who don’t use a cycle to commute to office because working after that, in that condition, wouldn’t be possible.”
The fortnight-long odd-even scheme has shown how destructive cars are to the city and the many benefits of weaning the city of its automobile addiction. Cycling offers a concrete, cost-effective plan to reduce Delhi’s car density with a number of positive side effects such as health and reduced pollution.