'Cycling as A Way of Life'

Bicycle: Politics of Possibility

T Vijayendra

The bicycle was invented 200 years ago by a prolific German inventor, Baron Karl Von Drais. His first reported ride was on June 12, 1817, in Mannheim in Germany. His bicycle had neither a chain nor any pedals! Yet, from this simple start, by 1890 the standard cycle or 'roadster' that we see nowadays had come into being. This type of bicycle is still used by millions of commuters and workers all over the world.

The standard roadster cycle ruled the world till the Second World War. Thereafter the world got split into two camps—on one hand, the developed nations of the world, mainly in the West, including Japan and Australia; and, on the other, the developing nations or the third world. The bicycle in the West became mainly a sport-and-hobby bicycle and the roadster became a relic of the past. Most people changed over to cars or public transport. In the last few decades, though, because of awareness of global warming and pollution, the bicycle is once again becoming popular in the West, though still mainly for recreational purposes. Such usage, though, has not reduced the car mileage per capita.

Within the developing world, of course, there has been a class divide with the rich aping the West and the poor sticking to relatively older technologies. This is often seen through the prism of the debate about 'India (rich) and Bharat (poor)', which became popular in the last quarter of the 20th century. In the context of the bicycle, of course, the standard roadster represents 'Bharat' and the fancy, multi-geared, fancy bicycle represents 'India'. As a rule, those who have fancy bicycles also own cars, motorcycles or scooters, and they use the bicycle, like in the West, mainly for recreational purposes.

However, the standard roadster cycle still rules the Indian market. This is because the majority of bicycle users in India are either those who commute over small distances or people who use their bicycles to run small businesses. The latter kind of bicycles are slightly modified—larger back carriers, old-fashioned stand, extra springs and stronger tyres to carry the extra load and survive the wear and tear. Workers from a wide variety of professions use them to earn their livelihoods. For an investment of about five thousand rupees, they can earn a net profit of fifteen thousand rupees per month in a city like Hyderabad. This is probably the most successful model of micro-entrepreneurship in India. In addition such workers provide a wide variety of goods and services at affordable prices. And yet these people do not get the respect due to them from the government, police and even ordinary people, although all of us benefit from their work.

Sanjay Srivastav wrote an article about three years ago with the title, 'Why the sports bicycle should not be a symbol of urban renewal'.1 According to him, "Over the past few years, the sports bicycle with bells and whistles, and its rider, whose riding gear might cost more than a month's salary paid to a professional car driver, have become icons of an urban renewal movement. We so perfectly walk in the footsteps of meanings borrowed from elsewhere that we erase our own imprints. Does the fancy bicycle hold the key to a improved urban environment, characterised by reduced pollution levels and more importantly, ease of access for the city's most disadvantaged populations? Far from it. … it is extremely unlikely that riding bicycles among the middle-classes is ever likely to be anything more than a leisure and lifestyle activity. It is not the bicycle, that ought to be the symbol of urban renewal but, rather, various means of public transport. To think otherwise is nothing more than a cruel joke upon the nature of inequality and aspirations ... This is not to say that the bicycle as an instrument of leisure ought to be discouraged. Rather, we should recognise it for what it is."

On November 6, 2015, Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria wrote a reply in the same journal.2 He says, "For the past few months I've been talking, cycling and hanging out with recreational cyclists in Mumbai. …What does the bicycle mean to them? It means pleasure, fitness and well-being. It means not polluting, even if just for a day. It means making friends outside of your immediate social circle. It means giving back to the city rather than taking from it. And to many, it means freedom. It means freedom from the office cubicle, the long commutes and the shackles of the auto-mobile. For many women, the bicycle means that and more. It also means freedom from the ceaseless cycle of housework and childrearing, freedom to be out in public, to wander, and to explore the city and all the challenges it offers"

He concludes with an idea of the 'Politics of possibility'. "The clearest possibility is an alliance between the two groups of people Srivastav portrays as fundamentally at odds—the livelihood and the recreational cyclists. Why preclude this from the outset? Right now there is no mass movement connecting the two groups of riders … But more often, everyday recreational and livelihood cyclists interact silently—a head nod here, a smile there or simply sharing the road for a kilometre or two in silent companionship. And so, bit by bit, the stigma of the bicycle as the 'poor man's vehicle', slowly crumbles." He adds, "These cyclists are not only doing it for fun, they are normalising cycling as a way of life."

Srivastav and Anjaria both have interesting points to make. What they miss, however, is the role of neo-liberal capitalism in this transformation of the Indian scene. 'India' is essentially a section of middle and upper-class people who have benefited from the neo-liberal policies that were implemented since the early nineties. In terms of government policies 'India' is represented by the LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) approach of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, the 'India Shining' of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and even Narendra Modi's 'Make in India'. In the realm of bicycles, neoliberal capital has entered through cycle tracks, cycle lanes and bike-share programmes. These programmes are demanded and supported by recreational bicycle enthusiasts, and Sanjay Srivastav is quite right in saying that "the sports bicycle represents a form of forgetting: lack of thought about urban inequalities, unequal distribution of resources."

International capital has also entered through 'docked and dockless bike share' programmes and the 'last mile' programmes for the Metro in Hyderabad. Many big national and international players have arrived and announced programmes: Ola Pedal, Yulu, Chinese Ofo and InMobi. Almost all of them use imported bicycles which cost at least twice as much as the Indian roadster bicycle. Most of them have not got off the ground and many will fail—but that is how capitalism works. Meanwhile they have secured the support of the Indian government, ministers and local municipalities and corporations.

Mumbai operates two schemes, and the Ministry of Urban Development is preparing to launch a 10-city public bike scheme as part of its 'Mission for Sustainable Habitat'. In Ahmedabad, MyByk cycle-sharing programme started with eight stations within the city in 2013. Subscribers can use the bicycles as long as required without having to return them to the stations. Mysore is the first Indian city to initiate cycle sharing in 2009 with 28 locations, and 52 further planned. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) launched the first software-based 'Public Bicycle Sharing scheme (PBS)', whereby commuters can rent cycles from a residential area and travel to the nearest Metro station where they leave the bicycle and then again rent another bicycle from another Metro station. In Pune, many IT companies have been promoting cycling to work. There are lot of bicycle-sharing schemes in the city. The trend is catching on in smaller cities including Rajkot, Bhubaneswar and Vadodara.

The industrial activity that most attracts capital in India is the construction industry. In the context of bicycles, it is about bicycle lanes, dedicated tracks, sports facilities and so on. Many municipalities, corporations and even state and central government have announced these programmes. For example, Chennai is building a cycle track in KK Nagar for Rs 36 lakh. Trichy is spending Rs 70 lakh on a bicycle corridor. Chandigarh wants to build 180 km. of bicycle track for Rs 25 crore. Other cities are announcing similar programmes. In Uttar Pradesh the erstwhile chief minister himself rode the first few kilometres of one of the longest dedicated bicycle roads in the world, connecting a wild life sanctuary and Agra.

Populist policies cannot vanish in a country where elections matter. They first came in the form of 'Free Bicycles for Schoolchildren' schemes. Starting with Bihar several state governments have announced and successfully implemented free bicycle schemes for high-school girls in government schools. Over the years the programme has extended to all children, irrespective of caste, class, religion or gender. The recent Sabuj Saathi programme in West Bengal is one such programme. By most accounts these programmes are very popular, successful, efficient and are low on corruption!

There are other populist possibilities. The government can lower GST for roadsters, cycle-rickshaws and cargo bikes. Government can help finance improved cycle-rickshaws and cargo bikes for small entrepreneurs like rickshaw drivers and hawkeRs The industry will welcome such schemes. Unions, cooperatives, self-help groups, micro-finance and loan schemes can be floated. Many political parties already have union leaders among them. Unions can become stronger, particularly bicycle-based-hawkers' unions. International Hawkers' Day (May 26) can be declared a public holiday along with May Day!

In this context, urban planner Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagen, Denmark, offers a refreshingly sane plan. He says that bikes are not primarily for racing or recreation or even commuting, or any of the many other subsets; they are just a great way to get around in cities.

The bicycle is ideal for cities. It is transport, it is a shopping cart, a family adhesive, and even an analog 'dating app'. With the rise of the cargo bike, it can be a SUV. It is everything you can imagine, anything you wish, and whatever you want it to be—and it's been that for all of 130 yeaRs This most human form of transport represents the perfect synergy between technology and the human desire for mobility. It is the most perfect vehicle for urban living ever invented.3

The bicycle urbanism that Mikael wants to reinvent for European and American cities has never entirely vanished from India, although it has become largely invisible due to the invasion of fossil fuel-based cars, buses, motorcycles and scooteRs The roadster has made its place in the Indian economy in the form of cargo bikes. A huge cycle-parts manufacturing industry exists in the Ludhiana region of Punjab. They supply for parts for all kinds of bicycle and tricycle cargo bikes. To begin with, the standard two-wheeler roadster can carry four people with a tiny baby-seat on the horizontal bar. The roadster is also modified to carry loads up to 500 kg. by providing a stronger and wider carrier behind the seat. The waste paper industry in cities depends on these bikes. In rural areas animal feed is carried on them. Small businesses selling tea, food, plastic buckets, coconuts and scores of other items are conducted using bicycles. A link to a short film about these myriad uses is given below.4

Then there is a large variety of three-wheeler cargo bikes. To begin with we have the cycle-rickshaw, normally designed to carry two passengers apart from the driver. Improved designs have come in many parts of the country. In Delhi, the 'last mile' of the Metro is served by this improved cycle-rickshaw, typically charging Rs 10 per passenger. The most ubiquitous cargo bike is the urban-waste-disposal tricycle employed by municipalities in India. With 'separation at source' becoming a requirement for urban waste, better-designed vehicles have appeared—as also better-paid and better-dressed municipal workeRs The ordinary cycle-rickshaw is also modified to carry loads for small distances in the market. Almost all the ice cream vendors on Indian roads use specially designed tricycles with a battery-operated refrigerator. Bangalore has come up with a well-designed tricycle for vegetable vending. Finally, the old four-wheeler push car also exists and accounts for significant amount of hawkers' business.

It is obvious that in India the roadster is not going away. Even today 70 percent of the bicycles manufactured in India are roadsteRs The roadster, with its various modifications, remains the backbone of India's urban transport system. Populist programmes like free bicycle schemes for school children will also continue to support the roadster cycle industry. However, recreational cycles have also come to stay, and they represent about 30 percent of the market. What will not survive are the bike-share programmes with their electronic gadgets. They are failing in many places in the world and they are not needed. Ordinary bicycles rental programmes have existed in the past, and even in tourist places a few fancy cycle-renting programmes will survive.

The basic problem is created by fossil fuel-based transport, which have occupied our road space, created urban traffic jams and raised air pollution to dangerous levels. This is what we must work to reduce. Creating special bicycle lanes will not solve the problem, and it will anyway take up further urban space. As we have shown above, this approach mainly serves the construction industry. The money wasted on such programmes can be better utilised in improving public transport and discouraging private cars

The other big problem is the prestige associated with caRs In this area the recreational bicycle enthusiasts can help to create an alternative aspiration model as well as instil concern for the environment. Thus there are specific areas in which India and Bharat can meet or as Anjaria says, the 'Politics of possibility' exists!

There is good reason to hope. The world is going through a resource crunch, particularly a petrol crunch. Cities will shrink in size. We are going through a phase of transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a society free from fossil fuels.
Transition Towns is a grassroots network of communities that are working to build resilience in response to peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability. A key concept within transition is the idea of a community-visioned, community-designed and community-implemented plan to proactively transition the community away from fossil fuels. The term 'community' in this context includes all the key players: local people, local institutions, local agencies and the local council.

In the field of transport, the number of cars will come down, making way for bicycles, tricycles (our familiar cycle-rickshaw) and other cargo bicycles and tricycles. The transition plan involves an approach to town planning in the field of transport based on bicycle and cargo bicycles. We have to plan for bicycle parking and bicycle maintenance services. With reduced and eventually zero private cars, there will be space and safety for all kinds of bicycles and cargo bicycles. It is better to invest in improving our cycle-rickshaws and cargo bicycles and tricycles. Good design and efficient designs exist in India and all over the world, and within a decade the cycles will take over!

Notes and References
I have immensely benefited from discussions with Hema Vaishnavi on several earlier drafts of this article. Vidyadhar Gadgil has edited the article and made it readable.
All the reference material can be found in one place on the Facebook page which Ms. Hema Vaishnavi has been running for more than a year. It is a great source of news and articles about the bicycle.

1.      Sanjay Srivastav, 'Why the sports bicycle should not be a symbol of urban renewal'.
2.      Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, 'The Cyclist and the Marxist: Why everything should not be reduced to class conflict.'
3.      Mikael Colville-Andersen writes the definitive guide to global bicycle urbanism:
4.      Rakesh Anand Bakshi, 'The Most Beautiful Bicycles'

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Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018