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Set the wheels in motion for a cyclists’ manifesto

‘Nationally, cycling to school has increased’
| Photo Credit: M. SRINATH

Cycling in India should not just be considered as another transport issue. Contemporary western discourse on cycling is often framed within the context of decarbonising transport, and rightly so. In India, however, cycling is a matter of social justice with a transformative impact on people’s lives.

Data on cycling ownership and use

Against the tide of a relentless growth of car-centric road infrastructure and an incessant increase in the ownership of motor vehicles, cycling in India has remained surprisingly resilient. Consider the household ownership of cycles over the two decades, from 1998-99 to 2019-21, using data from rounds two and five of the National Family Health Surveys, respectively. While, nationally, ownership increased only marginally, from 48% to 55%, in some States, however, the growth has been phenomenal. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, for example, the increase was from 30% to more than 75%, while in Uttar Pradesh, it was from 26% to 71%, and in West Bengal, from 53% to 79%. In comparison, population-weighted average car ownership across these four States was a measly 5.4% in 2021.

Data suggests that this increase in ownership of cycles also translates to higher use. In a working paper, a team at the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi analysed the data from the three rounds of National Sample Survey Organisation surveys on household consumption on education (2007-17). Among the many indicators, this data reported how children go to school — walking, by cycle, bus, or other. We independently collected data on the implementation of bicycle distribution schemes (BDS), using Right to Information applications, when necessary. Under these schemes, different State governments provide free bicycles to children using either in-kind or in-cash transfers.

Nationally, cycling to school increased from 6.6% in 2007 to 11.2% in 2017. In rural areas, the levels nearly doubled (6.3% to 12.3%) while, in urban areas, the levels have remained stable (7.8% to 8.3%).

We found that the States that saw the greatest decadal increase in cycling to school were those where BDS had been implemented. In Bihar, for example, BDS was launched in 2006, and the level of cycling to schools quadrupled from 3.6% in 2007 to 14.2% in 2017. The Sabooj Saathi scheme in West Bengal started in 2015, and the levels there increased from 15.4% in 2014 to 27.6% in 2017— a 12 percentage point increase over three years. The success of BDS across various States in India is a testimony to the huge latent demand for cycling.

Social outcomes

Access to cycles can have a profound impact on children’s lives. Under BDS in Bihar, the State government provided funds to girls who enrolled in class nine to buy bicycles. Evaluations from Bihar and Karnataka suggest that the BDS is associated with the enrolment of girls in class nine and girls appearing for secondary school certification exams. Most importantly, these outcomes indicate that some children did not go to schools, or went there infrequently, as the schools were too far to walk to, and they could not afford a bicycle.

We recently evaluated the impact of a small-scale experiment in Bengaluru where a non-governmental organisation provided free bicycles to 170 low-income women working in garment factories. We found that two-thirds of those who were given a bicycle, along with some training, switched to cycling to go to work. Earlier, they either walked long distances or took a bus. When we asked why they had not considered buying a bicycle before, almost half responded that they could not afford it.

For many, owning a cycle remains a luxury. It is for a similar reason that there was a jump, by 23%, in daily bus ridership after Karnataka implemented the Shakti scheme, which provides free bus travel to women. Out-of-pocket expenses can be a major barrier to transport use.

More State governments should consider implementing BDS schemes, and these should be broadened in their coverage (for example, remove the restriction to rural areas, and extend them to urban areas). There are rare cases of States that have schemes for adults, such as Uttar Pradesh, that provide free bicycles to labourers. These should be considered for large-scale implementation.

Cyclists and urban challenges

In urban areas, though, the provision of cycles will not be enough. Roads are designed in ways that make cycling an experience full of hazards. Multi-lane roads, flyovers, and wide junctions make it extremely risky for cyclists to navigate through the traffic without inviting risks. According to an estimate this writer did for Delhi, for the same distance travelled, a cyclist is 40 times more likely to be involved in a traffic fatality than a car occupant. Cities should invest in dedicated cycling infrastructure such as cycle tracks, safe and secure parking, and repair shops.

In the parliamentary elections, political parties in India have the opportunity to promise a cyclists’ manifesto.

Rahul Goel is Assistant Professor, Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, New Delhi. Twitter: @rahulatiitd

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