Updated: April 26, 2018 10:09:57 pm
“Numbers always help,” says Arshel Akhter, “If I have the numbers, they might just take me more seriously.” A few months ago, the Guwahati-based cyclist, along with a small group of like-minded people, petitioned the government to introduce designated lanes for cyclists in the city, but was rejected. “There is no space for cars, so how can we give space to cycles?” he was told. Today, as the city’s “Bicycle Mayor” — an honorary position bestowed on him by Amsterdam-based organisation BYCS that is trying to introduce a cycling revolution of sorts in the world — Akhter’s first step will be to build an online database of active cyclists in the city. “And it isn’t a such a small number, I can assure you that,” he says, “Once I have the statistics, my case will be stronger.”
Akhter started cycling recreationally a couple of years ago — he’s an active member of the Guwahati Cycling Community that sustains itself via a Whatsapp group and a Facebook page and has members from a range of professions (doctors to bureaucrats) and age groups (the youngest is 13, the oldest is 73!). “Our groups organises trips within the city as well as to neighbouring towns such as Pobitora, Hajo and Chandrapur,” he says. On Independence Day last year, another group, the Guwahati Cycling Tour which Akhter is also a part of, organised something called a “Freedom Ride” where 200 cyclists participated.
But Akhter insists that this is more than just a recreational pursuit. Earlier, he would try going to schools to encourage youngsters to start cycling — “But I never really got a chance. I had no certification and that would not sit well with the school authorities,” he says. A few months ago he came across the work done by BYCS in Amsterdam. The organisation aims at “a world where 50% of all city trips are by bicycle by 2030” and focuses on a “shift from car-centric to human centric cities.” The organisation also chooses “Bicycle Mayors” over the world — designated people who encourage cycling in their respective cities. “This is an honorary position — I am not getting paid for it,” says Akhter. There are 10 such “mayors” across the world — from Capetown to Sao Paulo to even Baroda, where India has its other “Bicycle Mayor.” “I applied because I felt that this would legitmize my goal,” says Akhter, whose cycling community in Guwahati endorsed his application.
Akhter’s goal is to encourage residents to commute using cycles instead of cars and build special cycling zones and infrastructure. “The city at present does not have any data regarding the number of people using cycles as a result of which no policy has been formulated for the cyclists,” he says.
According to a 2014 report by the Sustainable Urban Transport Project (a Government of India initiative), around 40,000 new vehicles are registered in Guwahati every year. Traffic snarls in the city are commonplace. “Compared to the other metros, Guwahati is not such a big city. People’s homes are at a distance of roughly 5km from their offices or schools. Yet it takes 45 minutes, and sometimes even more to reach our destinations,” he says, “The roads are congested — and people should realise that switching to bicycles will actually make them move faster.”
Akhter’s database will also help track stolen cycles. “As of now insurance companies in Guwahati are very reluctant to insure cycles as they do not have any idea about the technological advancements in cycling and the resultant increase in their price,” he says. The city has an old system of marking cycles but hardly anyone follows it, nor do they know about it.
“In Northern Europe the concept of commuting by bikes is fast picking up. But in India it hasn’t. It is sad because a city like Guwahati has terrain which is conducive to cycling.” Growing up in the eighties when Guwahati was a small town, Akhter would cycle around the sloping hills of the city often. “For people in the city, cycling was a compulsion before. Now it’s just a choice,” he says.
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