No Country for Cyclists

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Most developed countries go out of their way to promote a cycling culture, but in India, it can be a really dangerous hobby

It was late in the evening when Mohan Raman, a 38-year-old who works for Siemens, left his office in Gurgaon for his home in Dwarka. Raman is a family man, and like a lot of others on the roads speeding home to dinner, television and children, he too was in a hurry to get back to his two kids. The only difference being, his ride was a bicycle worth Rs 24,500. He decided to speed up to about 25 kmph. As he was cruising on Old Gurgaon Highway, he passed a Santro parked on the extreme left of the road. Without any warning, the driver’s door opened and he rode straight into it. The plastic inner surface of the door cracked and his front wheel twisted in response.

“They didn’t even have the decency to say sorry,” Raman recalls, “They just said ki tumko dikhta nahi hai (‘can’t you see’)?” The driver, a youngster, seemed to be on his way back from work with friends. Raman told them to shut up and get lost.

After Ruma Chatterjee, coach of the women’s national cycling team, was killed in an accident on the Delhi-Noida-Direct (DND) flyway on 18 June, the overriding thought in the minds of cyclists like Raman is how easy it is to get killed on Indian roads. Chatterjee was not on a bicycle. She was riding a motorcycle behind her team, all of whom were on cycles. She had been in the left-most lane when a speeding cab went out of control and smashed into her. If she hadn’t been there, it could have been one of the cyclists in her place.

Onkar Singh, secretary general of the Cycling Federation of India and a colleague of Chatterjee, says that the standards that Chatterjee set, not just as a coach but as a mentor to her students, will be tough to match: “There are hardly any women coaches in India, and the few we have are not of her level. In India, once a woman gets married, her sporting career is over.” He had once asked her why she hadn’t thought of marrying. She replied that she was already married to cycling. “Ten months in a year, she used to be with her cyclists,” he says.

MOST CYCLISTS IN India face the question of what they must do, over and above wearing protective gear, following traffic rules and sticking to the extreme left, to ensure their safety on Indian roads. The answer is not much. “People in autos and on motorbikes think you are a mosquito—machchhar,” Raman says. Eight years of experience as a cyclist in India have taught him that it is important to be cool and patient. There is no other way.

Gaali-waali hote rehta hai (you keep getting cursed at), but you can’t keep getting worked up,” he says.

That it is a cultural problem is a sentiment shared by riders across the country. Drivers of motor vehicles find it difficult to comprehend that they aren’t the only ones on the road. “People don’t like it when they see a cyclist joining the traffic stream all of a sudden. They are like ‘Ye saala kahan se aa gaya’ (where did this idiot come from),” says Hari Menon, a 47-year-old amateur racer from Bangalore. Menon recalls how he was almost thrown off the road into a khat—a stretch of earth sloping down about 10 metres—by a speeding truck. He was on National Highway 17, just south of Kochi. “I must have been clocking 40-45 kmph. The truckwala, driving in parallel, saw a cycle and decided to come too close, even though he had plenty of space on the road to drive on. He didn’t hit me, but the forceful stream of air that did almost knocked me off my path.”

Jose George, founder of Lakecity Pedalers, a cycling group in Mumbai, says, “The guy in the car makes an opinion of you in a fleeting second, which is often not very flattering. You need to ensure that you don’t get in their crosshairs if you want to stay safe.” Drivers of big cars are more dangerous than those of trucks and buses. “They are so arrogant, they don’t care who they crush under their wheels, especially in Delhi,” says Shubho Sengupta, a Delhi-based cyclist who has been on the roads for more than 20 years. “Mehrauli Road is probably the most dangerous stretch of road for cycling in Delhi. They can just come and hit you and go. No cops, nothing.”

Cyclists suffer the effects of a bias by many motorists that stems from a belief that not being powered by an engine, the cycle is slow. That is not always true, and is, in fact, one of the major reasons for accidents on city roads. “We often drive at 30-60 kmph,” says Menon, “and it’s difficult for people to judge how fast we actually are driving. You see the guy on a cycle in your peripheral vision and assume that you have around 7-10 seconds to turn or make a move, whereas you don’t. We are already there in about a second. The reaction time required to avoid collision in such a situation is difficult to achieve for both the cyclist and the driver.”

According to a recent article in The Hindu Business Line by Pankaj Munjal, chairman of the All India Cycle Manufacturers Association and managing director of Hero Cycles, there are approximately 100 million cycles in India, and annual production is around 15 million units. A 2008 study on traffic and transportation policies and strategies in urban India, conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates and India’s Ministry of Urban Development, places the proportion of people using non-motorised transport in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore at 30 per cent, cars at 10 per cent and public transport at 44 per cent.

  But most Indian cities don’t have space enough for cars, let alone bicycles. Once upon a time, a high density of people and mixed land use made Indian cities friendly for cyclists and pedestrians, but they have increasingly been designed and redesigned for the convenience of motorised traffic. For example, cycles are now banned in busy areas of Kolkata such as Esplanade, Park Street and MG Road from 9 am to 7 pm, to make way for motorised traffic. Amateur racers and professional athletes have greater demands than just space. “We have to have tracks as well as roads for training, because we train for both speed and endurance,” says Onkar Singh. “For endurance, you have to do up to 500 km a week, for which you need good roads. Where we have tracks—in places like Amritsar, Delhi, Hyderabad, Ludhiana, Pune and Patiala—the roads are very congested. Where we have roads, there are no tracks.

This is the basic problem we are facing at the moment.” Singh stresses the fact that amateur and professional racers have no option but to move out of such cities. Ruma Chatterjee and her cyclists had been using the DND flyway for the past two years.

Female cyclists face at least one more major issue on Indian roads. And that, because they are female. Vicki Nicholson, an Irish national who currently lives in Bangalore, talks excitedly about cycling communities in the city. She feels that active participation and strong intra-community bonding makes Bangalore’s cycling culture particularly encouraging. And then she mentions the flipside. “On Nandi Hills, I have had guys on motobikes patting me on the backside a few times,” she says. “It’s intrusive, but I have consciously decided not to get upset by it.”

Also, Indian women often have to wear more clothing than is comfortable while cycling in order to avoid being stared at and hassled. “When I cycle alone, I don’t wear shorts,” Nicholson says. “Proper cycling clothing is tight-fitting lycra. In India, if you get stuck in the countryside wearing that, [you’re] asking for trouble.” She feels North India, especially Delhi, is hazardous for a lone woman cyclist.

Government response to demands for dedicated cycling lanes, tight regulation of traffic and safe parking for bicycles—which can cost anything between a few thousand rupees to a couple of lakh—has been mixed. Members of a Gurgaon-based cycling group, Pedal Yatri, say they had organised a ride to Vice President Hamid Ansari’s residence last year and handed him their report on the plight of cyclists, but nothing came of it.

On the other hand, Chennai-based cyclist Satish Narayanan, who runs an online bike information portal called ChooseMyBicycle, says the Government has been supportive. “They have promised to create dedicated cycling lanes and have also been present during [the] annual cycling events that cycling groups conduct.” Onkar Singh agrees. “We have asked around 10-12 chief ministers to build dedicated cycling tracks. In Noida and New Raipur city, we have seen positive responses. Shivraj Singh Chouhan also responded positively,” he says.

Developed countries go out of their way to nurture a cycling culture as an environmentally sagacious practice. The mayor of London sanctioned £1 billion last month for cycling lanes. New York City has developed hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes over the past few years. But even in these places, there is a conflict between cyclists and motorists.

This gave rise to the now famous Critical Mass, an informally organised cycling event typically held on the last Friday of every month in cities across the world. Cyclists from all over a given city meet at a pre-set time and place, and then ride around town to raise awareness about cycling and urge city administrators to provide suitable solutions to their problems. The event, which cyclists see as social and authorities often see as political, first took place in San Francisco in 1992.

In India where urban spaces are overcrowded, the feasibility of creating and maintaining separate lanes for cyclists is a big question mark. Jose George is of the opinion that motorists should be given first preference as far as roads and support infrastructure are concerned, or else they will keep spilling over onto pavements and sidelanes. Mumbai, incidentally, is infamous among cyclists for the simple reason that it already caters to more people than its infrastructure can handle. Every inch of road is fought over.

Even in cities that have designated cycling lanes, encroachment is common. Pedal Yatri co-founder Jasbeer Singh says, “Whatever lanes we do have in Gurgaon are routinely used by bikes, autos, tempos and sometimes even police jeeps. If not, you will find them littered with hawkers.” Just setting up cycling lanes does not solve anything.

Ruma Chatterjee’s death has led to a peculiar anxiety among some cyclists. Because she was a high-profile victim, they think the Government’s response will be to ban or curtail cycling instead of making it safer. Hari Menon compares the scenario to the death of Mohammad Azharuddin’s son in a motorcycle accident two years ago, when authorities reacted by banning all two-wheelers on certain roads. “What are the odds they won’t do the same thing this time? And the cyclists who need such roads to practise, what will they do then?” Many expressways are off limits for cyclists already. “In Hyderabad, for instance, the guys at the toll booths jump out of their cabins and come and tell you that, ‘Boss idhar mat chalana cycle’ (don’t ride your cycle here),” says Menon.

After Chatterjee’s death, Onkar Singh says he is too scared to let his cyclists ride on the DND. “We are trying to find a road outside Delhi. But there’s no way in Delhi you will find a road suitable for this. We must move out.” Singh accepts that incidents such as the one on the DND flyway happen everywhere in the world. In 2005, the famous Australian cyclist Amy Gillett was training with her team in Germany when a drunk female driver lost control of her car and drove into her, killing her. Closer home, Menon was cycling with his partner early one morning on Hennur road when a middle-aged lady, who was being taught how to ride a scooter by her husband, drove straight into them. Luckily, nothing happened.

Raman’s wife has always found it hard to understand why he needs to cycle to work even though they own a Maruti Suzuki Swift. He must start from home at 7 am sharp every morning, if he is to avoid traffic, and must leave work late enough to avoid the evening rush. Altogether, he rides almost 35-40 km a day, and has been doing so for eight years. “She has stopped arguing with me these days,” he says. “She is resigned to the fact that I am probably just not interested in taking the Swift to work.” He says he does it to stay fit. To Raman, Chatterjee’s death is troubling. “I know people who use that stretch to cycle to work. This incident has scared me,” he says. But for people like him, there is no choice. They just have to live with the risks that come with their passion.