Category Archives: India

Song of Joy

Having spent most of my life in progressive cities or atleast cities which think they are progressive. These cities fight hard to break away from the old ways. whether it’s food or clothing or mode of transport. They believe in killing the old.

So home cooked food takes a backstage when kids want to go out and have food at MacDonald’s. The traditional Indian dresses have long been gone and replaced by Denims and Tees. Similarly bicycles are no more trendy, motorbikes and cars are the way of life.

Specially last 15-20 years have seen too drastic a change. We often refer it to as the Mobile Generation the “mobile” coming from the Mobile Phones. Alongwith these attitudes a lot gets lost without realisation everything happens bit by bit. A person realises only when one sits in the time machine and goes back a few decades.

Well everybody is not as lucky as me.

YES. Recently I did a bit of TIME TRAVEL.

It was not so high-tech as it sounds. Infact Time Travel can be done in a much more LowTech manner. Recently I chanced upon to visit a place called Shantiniketan (West Bengal, India). A small sweet town better known for it’s red soil and it’s gifts to Literature & Art. Leave the centre of the town and you are in a world which runs on bicycles. Yes Sir, the main mode of transport in this town is not cars, not scooters but bicycles. that does not mean the city is full of prehistoric creatures. In contrast average people of this small town will be probably more “literate” than in the big progressive towns.

“Literate” may not mean they have attended school, but surely have learnt much more from people around them and the basic aura of the city.

It’s strange in India to expect a Rickshaw Puller to quote poetry which most of us school goers may not have heard about. Well I guess I am not wandering to far from our core that is the Bicycle. Just think of a city where there are no cars, which means no Big Cars vs Small Cars which leads to less social inequality. A Postman or A College Professor or An Architect when all of them ride similiar black bicycles they all look to be of the same social strata and they blend much better into each others life. Which leads to better sharing of knowledge. Hence a more literate society if not more educated.

Not just that i realised the pace of a bicycle is more conducive for a creative soul. A person is more relaxed and free to think on a bicycle than a car. Probably that makes Shantiniketan one of the creative hubs of the country.

This little town seems to be India. India, the way it was till the 60’s or 70’s. The way it was supposed to be. People lending a helping hand to his fellow citizen. Not running away by showing off how fast he is.

Over here people are less scared of honks and speeding cars. Which means they love singing a song to their fellow bikers as they ride along the red soiled earth.When was the last time any of us did it?

A moment which may haunt me for times to come. Even though I back from my Time Travel he haunts me. A Rickshaw Puller who pulled our rickshaw all the way to a river bank and then he sang a song of joy. A song written on the same river bank a couple of decades back by a famous poet of those days. Time hadn’t stopped. But still people in Shantiniketan sing their own Song of Joy.

One day you may chance upon a city like this while doing some Time Travel till then Sing a Song of Joy to your fellow cyclist.

All these pictures are from Shantiniketan and nearby villages.

Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

I just got back from a week in Seville, Spain at the Velo-City global bicycling conference. Velo-City began as a european bicycling conference in 1980 and was held bi-annually since 1987. As of last year, it became an annual event and opened its doors to presenters from around the world.

This is great progress. However, to what extent are issues in Africa relevant to those in Europe? Can Cape Town learn from Amsterdam or Dallas learn from Copenhagen? How much is “knowledge sharing” between such radically different contexts valuable?

At this year’s event, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the few folks who had made the trip up from the lovely “country” of Africa since it is a part of the world which is still a bit of fuzzy territory for me. Most of these people were from English speaking countries in southern Africa, and many of them were ex-pats themselves working on various bicycle related projects.

It became rapidly clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issues people are addressing in Africa are in a completely different universe from those in Europe.

In the global north, cycling is seen as a means of urban transport which is promoted mainly by city planners as a means to reduce motorized transportation for health, “liveability”, and environmental sustainability. Most of those of us involved in this movement are well educated and generally reasonably well off as are most of those actually cycling. Most people have access to other means of transport such as busses or cars and are choosing the bicycle, perhaps in addition to other modes.

By stark contrast, African projects were dealing with people (often women) who were typically rural, poor, and do not have access to other means of transportation. The goal of many of these projects is to give people greater mobility, thereby decreasing the amount of time necessary to access basic needs like jobs, water, food, etc. Most people working in this sector come from international development, not urban planning.

This contrast was perhaps starkest in the fourth plenary session with Kayemba Patrick from ITDP in Uganda and Joaquin Nieto from the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development discussing economic benefits of cycling.

Nieto spoke about how European bikeshare programs create jobs for cities (largely through what I would consider to be high degrees of inefficiencies in redistribution and maintenance). Patrick spoke about how getting access to a bike reduces the amount of time women in rural Uganda have to spend getting water and access to economic opportunities. They were then engaged in a discussion afterwards where it was clear that neither one of them really had any idea how to find any sort of common ground.

Another strange pairing was between Marie Kåstrup from Copenhagen and Gail Jennings from Cape Town speaking about women and bicycling. Kåstrup spoke about the “cycling girl” narrative in Denmark where woman and cycling are portrayed as soul mates, which logically and intuitively serve as icons for the national past time of cycling. In Denmark, almost as many women bike as men. Jennings talked about how woman are sexualized in their portrayal next to bicycles, with images of women in tight mini-skirts sexually pumping air into tires. In Cape Town, most cyclists are riding for sport- not transport- and about 75% of cyclists are men. Very few women ride bicycles and to do so is to ask for censure at every turn.

The point here is not to get into discussions about the specifics of these issues (I refer you to the people mentioned for those details). My point is more to question what we hope to gain by bringing people together from different contexts and what can be learned from “European best practices” from Copenhagen, Amsterdam or anywhere else.

There is a growing cadre of professionals who would like you to believe that a bicycling culture is something that can be readily “transferred”. It’s easy. Simply find somewhere that lots of people ride bicycles, copy the infrastructure and policy that “worked” there in your home town and then stand back and wait for people to start riding.

But guess what? What works in Copenhagen may not work in Cape Town.

What I heard from many people coming from the global south in particular was that they didn’t really care much about what was going on in Europe. What they wanted was to share knowledge between cities in the global south. South African cities probably have more to learn from cities (and rural areas) in India than from Europe.

The same is likely true in the global north. Gas guzzling Dallas came to Velo-City to learn how car-centric Seville has seen increases in bicycling from 0.5% to 6.6% in the past three years. Dallas planners won’t be making any trips to Copenhagen, even though Danes bike 37% here in the capital city.

A Velo-City global venue may still be useful but we still need to do some thinking around how, exactly, it is useful. In the meantime, we need to be facilitating venues for the sharing of knowledge between similar cities and working to develop context specific solutions from a deep understanding of local needs, not trying to make Cape Town into the next Amsterdam.

Bikeshare for robust cycle cultures

There are currently 238 bikeshare schemes in the world. This appears to be increasing at roughly 50% per year. If this rate continues, we will have some 1.200 bikeshare schemes by 2014. The next areas of major growth is in the US, Canada, and Australia, all of which also have pitiful cycling rates of around 1% of people biking in most cities. It will be exciting to see how these cities adapt European models for their local context.

But w hat about rapidly developing countries like India, China, and South Africa that have high cycling rates now but that are losting cyclists as the economy picks up and more people move to cars? They have many large contextual differences with Europe, but if they are to take any inspiration from bikesharin models, maybe they should consider looking at countries with robust cycling cultures like Holland, Denmark, and Germany- who are trying to keep people on bikes- not those with few cyclists like France, UK, or Spain who are trying to move people onto bikes.

Early innovation in bikesharing came out of robust cycling cultures like Holland and Denmark where about 20-40% of the population bikes. Most of the early growth in recent, high-tech bikesharing has come out of countries like France, Spain, and the UK where only  1% of the population rides a bike for transport.

Another big expanding market will be in rapidly developing countries like Brazil, China, South African and India which all have very high cycling rates which range from roughly 20-70% of the population. These are mainly ‘captive users’ who bike because they can’t afford other options.  As people get richer, they move to motorized vehicles, in part for speed and in part to gain higher status. These cities will need to develop their own local models, which are only just beginning to crop up in cities like Hangzhou, Buenos Aires, New Delhi, and Taipei.

These new models should develop from the local context up. However, if they are to take any leads from European cities, maybe they should look to those with a high modal split, like Denmark and Holland, not a low modal split like France or the UK.

In Holland, the OV-Fiets system is hooked into the national train company. Many people live and work in different cities, but when you have a huge number of cyclists, it is hard to fit them all onto the trains. Anyone who has ridden a train in Holland knows that there is virtually no integration for cyclists on the trains. It costs an exorbitant amount, you have to put them into the entryway of the car with no special racks (except on long distance international trains), the elevators are small, and none of this is easy given how heavy Dutch bikes are.

The solution, until recently, was to buy two bikes- one for the ‘home’ end and one for the ‘work’ end. You then bike to one station, ride to your destination city, and then pick up your second bike to ride onward.  OV-Fiets is integrated with the train operator. You pay only €10 per year in membership and then €3 per ride for up to 24 hours. This seems to be well enjoyed and used by Dutch I have spoken with.

Odense in Denmark is trying a similar concept geared toward commuters that is set to launch this spring. This program will cost you about €7 per week, €13 per month, or €33 per year. In the meantime, since October of last year, they have been using a phone based service where you pay about €2,50 per hour as a flat usage fee that comes off your phone bill.  JC Decaux, who runs many existing services, will operate it. It’s not clear to me how well used this service is since I haven’t met anyone who has used it yet.

Germany, with about 10% of the population biking, has NextBike and Call-A-Bike which I have written about in an earlier post. These are both floating systems, with no parking stations. Both use cell phones, not smart cards. Call-A-Bike is integrated with the DB train system and NextBike is a private operator, whose money comes from advertising and usage fees. NextBike is €1 per hour or €5 per day. Call-A-Bike is €0.08 per minute, €9-12 per day, and €45-60 per week. You can also pay €27-36 per year and then get the first 30 minutes free. NextBike uses extremely cheap bikes with no technology, while Call-A-Bike uses extremely expensive, high-tech bikes. Call-A-Bike bikes have to be placed in certain areas, while NextBike’s can be placed anywhere in the central city. Anecdotal evidence from one user suggests that forcing people to return Call-A-Bike bikes to a certain location is a deterrent, however given the spread of both of these systems throughout a multitude of cities in Germany and abroad, they must be doing something right.

These services pricing models are unlike systems like the oft touted London, Paris or Barcelona schemes which typically cost more like 50€ per year where the first 30 minutes is free and then there is a tiered hourly pricing thereafter. These systems for robust cycling communities are also more focused on daily commuters and many use cell phones, not smart cards. The German ones have also experimented with floating models which do not require parking spaces, and may help with the distribution issue.

As rapidly developing cities begin to implement bikeshare schemes, we will start to see new paradigms emerging. These contexts are dramatically different in that they consist of large, dense, cities coupled with cheap labor, high theft issues, massive social inequity, completely different cultural norms, and limited technology and data access. These cities have high cycling rates now but they are all dropping due to all manner of motorized alternatives, just as we saw in western cities 50 years ago with the entrance of cars.

This context provides its own limitations while also opening up new possibilities and local models will have to be developed. But if there is anywhere to look for inspiration in Europe, it could be from systems where cycling rates are high and municipalities are trying to keep them that way, not cities where rates are low and they are trying to increase them.

How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

Why is it that cycling seems to be primarily for poor people in developing countries like India, rich people in developed countries with low cycling rates like the US and a middle class phenomenon in developed countries with high cycling rates like Denmark and Holland?

Most cyclists in developing countries are what is known as “captive users”. They are riding not because they want to so much as because they cannot afford other options such as busses, let alone cars.

When I was in India this summer, I learned that many of the people who are cycling are men who are delivering things, like milk or vegetables. What was really shocking was that many of these people earned so little money that they could not even afford to buy their own bicycles, even though they only cost about $50. Instead, they were renting them for about 10 cents/hour from local bicycle shops. To my knowledge, there is no one with a rent-to-own system, but it would be great to set one up if anyone is looking for a social entrepreneurship project.

Milk delivery man in Pune, India

Most anyone with any money in India will immediately start riding the bus or (in the case of delivery men) buy themselves a motor scooter. If they have a bit more money, they will buy a car and if they have even more money, they will buy a fancier car. If they really have some money, they will hire a private driver to get them around. Basically, the more money people have, the more likely they are to drive a motorized vehicle and the less likely they are to consider anything non-motorized (including walking).

There are a few crazy people in India who are wealthy but still ride bicycles. I think I spoke with all four of them while I was there. Personally, I feel that these are the people who will be able to make a push for cycling in India since they have the political and economic capital to make it happen. But this is the topic of another article to come.

I just recently came back from my home country, the USA. There are many exciting developments going on in the past few years and I truly applaud the efforts there. But one thing really struck me from my visit to DC and New York (see links for cycling maps): most of the cycling infrastructure being developed is in neighborhoods inhabited by mainly wealthy, well-educated people like Park Slope and Dupont Circle and not in poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx or Anacostia.

Innovative cycling infrastructure near Dupont Circle in DC

One could be cynical and argue that this because planners are themselves living in these neighborhoods. While there is perhaps a degree of truth in that (and I believe there are some race and class issues in the planning field that need to be discussed more), I think there is more going on.

In speaking with planners, they said that they had tried to make inroads in some of these communities, but that they had received lower adoption rates. For instance, the DC bikeshare scheme Capital Bikes has a station in Anacostia but it is not used as much as in other neighborhoods. They said that this use of the bikeshare system mirrored the cycling demographics in general.

 

Anacostia waterfront neighborhood in DC cycling infrastructure

I went over there and investigated that area. There was a big fancy new development near the station, but much of the rest of the neighborhood seemed a bit more lower class and black. Most people seemed to be driving around in big SUVs. I met a young white man on the train who said he liked my bike and that he had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get a bike but complained that there was no infrastructure.

My guess is that the neighborhood is gentrifying and that the people who are using the bikeshare there are the young, largely white and educated, professionals moving in- not the poorer, uneducated black population.

In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is a decisively middle class phenomenon. However, what constitutes “middle class” here would be considered quite upper class in the US or India: most people have a college degree (which the government will pay you to get), being able to afford a fur coat is practically considered a human (though not animal) right, everyone has free health care, and there are virtually no homeless people.

Middle class Danish SUV

In Copenhagen you will see ambassadors, politicians and rock stars riding bicycles next to the average Dane. What you won’t see, however, is many muslim immigrants on bikes, despite the world class cycling infrastructure. Is this a skills and training issue, or is it more about integration and culture? Is bike riding just a particularly nationalistic endeavor? Is it still something for rich, white, educated people here too and it’s just that Denmark is a more homogeneous society of rich, white, educated people?

I don’t know the answer to that question though I clearly have my suspicions. What we really need is more research, discussion and action on issues related to race, class, religion, culture and cycling. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating increasing inequities in cites under the auspices of creating a more equitable transportation infrastructure.

Do segregated cycle tracks make sense in India?

This in from an informant in Pune, India where they built 80 km of cycle tracks, but most are unusable due to poor design, paving, and encroachment.

On 10th Nov 10, a cyclist was hit by a speeding luxury bus and died. The cycle tracks in Pune are just not visible, nor usable resulting in non-use of cycle tracks.

The manifold problems re CYCLE TRACKS are:

1.The signages are too little and insignificant/invisible, displayed after a pretty long distance. Lost or broken boards are never replaced.

2. CT are blocked by parking of 2 wheelers/rickshaws/cars , even trucks. (see earlier posts here and here)

3. Auto vehicles drive frequently on CT for convenience-contra flow-short cuts-congestion etc.

4. CT are used for private and commercial activities.

5. CT are used for dumping garbage/building repair-construction materials and left overs.

The question remains then: what is the best strategy for informal economies from the global south, like India? Can segregated bicycle lanes work? Or are they culturally specific to cities where traffic rules are clear and followed, like rule-bound Denmark, Holland, and Germany where they were developed? What should be put in in a place like India instead if segregated cycle tracks don’t make sense?

poor little bicycle lane

For those who have ever been to New Delhi surely know about the BRT Corridor which holds the cities one and only Bicycle Lane. Yesterday, I had an eventful day riding in the Biking Lane along with Motorbikes who shamelessly and fearlessly ride in bicycle lane. I tried talking to them and stopping them but zero results. I tried talking to the cops they threatened me in return and asked me to produce documents stating right of bicycles on the bicycle lane. How dumb is that? They were ignorant of all the road signs for the same. If cops don’t respect how do we expect the public to respect the same?

please shed some light

in india we often see bikers in two broad categories.
1. the bikers who earns his living out of the bike or she/he is dependent upon the bike to go for work.
2. the guy who uses bike for his recreation. seldom does she/he go to work on a bike, for commuting in the day to day life

the issue here is that the guy from Category 1 suffers from a social stigma. he is never appreciated for being a biker. whereas the Category 2 guy is always like a hero, though he may be carrying his bike half the time in his SUV, still he is known as an eco-friendly creature. Category 1 guy never gets a pat on his back for doing some good to the world, people just look down upon him, hence he wants to move out his dependency on the bike at the earliest.

by any chance is this a common phenomenon in other parts of the globe or is it India specific? Please let me know your point of view. and any solution is also invited.