The bicycle was invented in the 19th century and it remains a mode of transport for a large number of people. Developed countries in Europe have brought back the bicycle as a mode of urban commuting in a big way, while middle-income countries in Latin America are trying to replicate the model. It is time for India to promote bicycle culture as well, so that we burn less fossil fuels while improving our health. Medical experts view cycling as an exercise which, while being less strenuous on the body, is a workout for all the major muscles.
Bogota, Colombia’s capital, started a weekly programme called Ciclovia in 1974. Sections of roads were closed on Sundays for motor vehicles for half a day and only cycles, joggers and walkers were allowed. What started as a small exercise now covers more than 121 km of Bogota’s roads, with the participation of one-fourth of its population of eight million, every Sunday and on other holidays, covering around 68 days of the year. From 7.00 am to 2.00 pm, the young and the old come out in colourful dresses and give themselves an outing in their own city. People cycle to parks and other open spaces and participate in activities like yoga, aerobics, dance and music. The song celebrating the weekly bicycle outing says: “Bogota doesn’t have a beach but it has Ciclovia!”
Many cities in Colombia and Latin America have adopted Bogota’s Ciclovia. Encouraged by the people’s response to cycling, Bogota has also developed 400 km of cycle routes and is adding another 120 km. Around 7,00,000 trips are made by bicycle every day, constituting 6 per cent of all journeys. Seeing the popularity of Ciclovia, both public and private institutions sponsor events for spreading their particular messages. In the last week of November, one of the themes was “no violence against women or the girl child”. On June 19, 2016, Ciclovia, in cooperation with the Indian embassy, celebrated the International Day of Yoga with the participation of around 5,000 people.
In India, a start has been made through “Raahgiri” in certain areas of Delhi, Gurgaon, etc, but the initiative has room for expansion. This will require the involvement of the city administration as it needs some management of routes and traffic. Like in Bogota, other public bodies, such as water boards and health departments, will also have to make their services available to ensure drinking water and health facilities in emergencies.
Also, we must keep in mind the weather in various Indian cities. Bogota is pleasant all year. In India, cities in the North Indian plains can have more cycle days in winter, while the hills can have more cycle days in summer. Cities like Bengaluru can have Ciclovia, like Bogota, throughout the year. These bicycle Sundays can become vehicles to encourage people’s participation in government programmes such as Swachh Bharat or Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
Building cycle tracks must be a part of new town planning. The national highways, like in Colombia and several cities of Europe, could also have separate cycle lanes. Cycling culture, which existed in the 1970s and 1980s in India, before the arrival of cars in big numbers, can be revived. This revival will not mean that we do away with motorised transport. We should look forward to a combination, where some journeys will be by public transport, others by car, others still by bicycle. If there is safety in cycling, many will use it as their prime mode of transport.
Cycling will have health benefits, especially in India, where the proportion of people with diabetes and heart problems is rising. It will lessen pollution on the roads and save money, both in fuel and medical bills. And it will be in line with our commitments made in the Paris Agreement on climate change as it will reduce our CO2 emissions. In the long run, as we gradually move away from fossil fuels, cycling will provide a good alternative for short commutes and also become a sport for the young.