Even as India move from lockdown to “unlock”, public transport is still shut in major cities. It is essential right now to change the mobility paradigms of our cities, as it is neither technically nor financially feasible for everybody to switch to personal vehicles.

A recent advisory from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, has bought the focus back to walking and cycling. In June, it launched the Cycle4Change challenge. This is a welcome step, as we have long ignored the importance of cycling in our cities.

How can Indian cities take the recent cycling push as an opportunity to re-introduce the cycle as a preferred mode of transport? One way to do it will be to learn how other cities have revitalised cycling. Before you dismiss this by saying small European cities are not our benchmarks, let me take the examples of London and Bogotá.

What happened?

Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, makes more than eight lakh cycling trips per day. This is more than the number of daily taxi trips and almost half of the trips made by cars in the city. In 1995, the share of cycling in Bogotá was 0.6% of all daily trips. By 2015, it was 6% – a 10-fold increase. That’s not all. From 2005 to 2011, cycling trips rose by 57%, and from 2011 to 2015, there was a 30% increase. Bogotá boasts one of the world’s largest and most rapid cycling gains as a share of all urban trips.

On the other hand, London had a cycling share of 1% in 1993, which grew to 2% in 2013. In the past decade, the number of cycle journeys has more than doubled in the city. Today, cycling makes up almost 2.5% of all journeys traveled on London’s roads. Bikes now make up around 16% of traffic in Central London, rising to around a quarter during peak hours. Therefore, it is possible to increase cycling share in large cities, whether it be a developed or developing country.

Oxford Street in London. Cycling in the city has more than doubled over the past decade. Credit: TOlga Akmen/AFP

How it was done

Bogotá’s focus on cycling started in 1974, when the city organised its first Ciclovía, an open street initiative where key roads were blocked for motor traffic. Today, Bogotá observes Ciclovía on 120 km of the city’s roads, with 1.5 million people taking advantage of it every week. The city followed up with citizen involvement in Ciclovía by bundling cycling infrastructure.

Despite being a city of around 8 million, pedalling has never been easier for its citizens, thanks to the 476-km cycling routes. It is estimated that close to 100,000 people use Bogotá’s cycle route network every day, which helps them cut their costs and reduce air pollution. Over half of Bogotá households have at least one cycle.

The city has a bike-borrowing programme, which helps households that don’t have cycles. Places like Virrey Park, Santander Park and Plaza Bolivar have city bikes that can be rented for free to pre-registered users. The city has also benefitted from technology and apps such as Biko, which uses GPS to track cyclists’ routes and gives them a social network to share tips such as safe spots to park bikes, police monitoring, potential hazards, etc. Users collect “bike miles” to exchange for goods and services. The app, designed to promote cycling and create a community, was launched in Bogotá and is now attracting interest across the world.

A ciclovía or bike path, where key roads are blocked for motor traffic, in Bogota, Colombia. Credit: Eitan Abramovich/AFP

In 2008, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, set a target to increase cycling by 400% between 2008 and 2025 and announced an estimated £400 million of initiatives to improve and increase cycling and walking in the city. London’s next mayor also extended support for cycling.

The other big push for cycling in London came in 2010, when Transport for London, or TfL, launched the cycle-sharing scheme. The hugely-popular scheme attracted over five lakh rides every month. In 2013, a series of road traffic crashes in London involving cyclists brought the conversation back to poor cycling infrastructure and safety risks in the city.

The same year, TfL announced the creation of a “Safe Streets for London” plan. The plan aimed to cut road deaths by 40% by 2020 through a range of measures, including redesigning “critical” major junctions and streets, installing more and upgrading existing traffic enforcement cameras, and reducing speeds to 30 kmph.

Cycling as a sport has also played a vital role in kickstarting the London bike revolution. For example, the opening ceremony and the first stage of the prestigious Tour de France were held in London in 2007. The Great Britain cycling team won gold both in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics. Additionally, who can forget Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome winning the Tour de France title?

What Indian cities can do

Covid-19 has radically changed our travel habits around the world. This is the reason why the humble cycle is making a comeback across the globe. In fact, such is the demand for cycles that stores are struggling to keep up with the number of orders. It is clear from the examples of London and Bogotá that making cycling-friendly cities is a long-drawn process and requires continued action and focus on multiple fronts. Therefore, it is time to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a chance to cycle for change.

Amit Bhatt is the executive director WRI India. He leads the transport work at WRI India. Chetan Sodaye is the Project Associate at WRI India. He works on road safety projects at WRI India.