Indian cyclists fighting for pedal power revolution

by AFP/Phil Hazlewood, Feb 16, 2009 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

Mumbai, February 8, 2009 - In India, where the car is king, the only cyclists tend to be delivery men, heaving the pedals of ancient, rusting, single-gear machines laden with milk churns or tied-up bales of newspapers.

But the country's small, yet vocal, band of cycling enthusiasts is hoping to change all that, by taking to the streets in a regular celebration of pedal power to show that push bikes exist and also have rights on the road.

"Cycling is always treated as a poor man's transport in India," Anoop Rajan, 24, told AFP. "One thing that we have to change is that if you cycle and you have a good bike, it should be something prestigious."

One way of increasing the profile of cycling around the world has been through Critical Mass rides, where cyclists meet and ride en masse through cities, often with loud music, fancy dress and whistles for accompaniment.

They have become a familiar sight across the world since the concept began in San Francisco in 1992. India's first was held in the capital New Delhi last September.

Since then rides have taken place in the southern city of Bangalore and in the country's financial and entertainment centre Mumbai, steadily gaining in participants and attracting the curious interest of locals.

Mumbai's first Critical Mass, organised by Rajan, was scheduled to take place on November 29 but was postponed after the attacks on the city. It eventually took place on the last Saturday of December with nearly 50 riders.

The second event was held at the end of January and saw more than 75 riders take on traffic on a 6.8-kilometre (4.2-mile) route along one of the city's frequently clogged main transport arteries.

Kunal Ghevaria, a 32-year-old Mumbai architect, commutes to work on a folding bicycle. He believes cyclists here are often ignored as legitimate road users and such shows of strength and solidarity as the Critical Masses are important.

"It's partly just an act of having fun together as a group, it's partly a political act, saying (to other road users), 'let us have the road for three hours a month'," he said.

Rajan, Ghevaria and other cyclists like them face a daily battle against the elements and environment.

Cycle lanes are non-existent; riders have to compete for space on the road with pedestrians who have themselves been forced off footpaths -- where they exist -- by roadside vendors and hawkers.

Cars, buses, taxis, motorbikes and auto-rickshaws pull out unexpectedly, undertake and overtake in the constant jostle for position on the congested, potholed streets. Hand carts and wandering cows provide additional obstacles.

Little incentive to get on your bike

The problem is likely to get worse as private car ownership -- aided by car loans and fuelled by an emerging, aspirational middle class -- increases, making India one of the world's fastest-growing car markets.

Car sales rose by about 12 percent in the financial year to March 2008, according to industry figures, and could rise further when the world's cheapest car -- the India-built Tata Nano -- hits the streets in coming months.

There are few, if any, financial carrots to encourage cycling.

Cycles can be hired from specialist shops but there is nothing like Paris' public bike rental scheme or the British government's incentives for employers to encourage their staff to cycle to work through tax-free loans to buy bikes.

Few workplaces have showering facilities for those who have pedalled through monsoon rains or scorching temperatures on dusty streets.

Discussion boards of Internet sites like Indian Cyclists Network show a thriving community as passionate about bikes as anywhere else in the world, and keen to promote sustainable transport at a time of concern about vehicle emissions.

"Look at the congestion, the chaos of the traffic in Mumbai. It's incredible. It's impossible," said Ghevaria, who has participated in Critical Masses around the world, including in San Francisco.

"I sometimes spend two hours in the car just to get six kilometres.

"The distances people drive are easily cyclable. It's so ridiculous to see people take the car to ride a cycle in the gym then take the car back again.

"Also with the growing epidemic of obesity, we are sitting at our desks all day. We need some exercise. If you can combine it with commuting, it just makes sense."

Yet with few incentives to get pedalling, even for leisure, Mumbaikars and Indians in general will continue to overheat in overcrowded buses and trains and get stuck in rickety taxis or chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned cars.

Lone, cycling commuters will remain a curiosity and bicycle clubs will continue to meet en masse or ride in the dead of night when there is little traffic.

Ghevaria said change will not come overnight.

"I don't know how long it will take. I'm going to keep doing it. That's the only thing to do. I think it's right and I hope that people listen. You have to start with small steps," he said.

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