India eyes cycling infrastructure boost amid pollution and pandemic woes

Village girls walk with bicycles they received from their school under a government scheme in Malancha, India, Oct 20, 2021. (BIKAS DAS / AP)

India plans to expand a program aimed at boosting cycling infrastructure in its cities amid a national goal to promote a green lifestyle and curb air pollution. 

As part of the Smart City Mission, as many as 107 cities have been identified for rollout of dedicated cycling tracks, according to the federal ministry of housing and urban affairs.

Earlier in the year that 41 cities have identified 400 kilometers of arterial roads and 3,500 km in neighborhood areas to develop them as dedicated cycle lanes.

Cycling is one of the green mobility which provides each one of an opportunity to be a part of the change. Respect pedestrians and cyclists.

Kunal Kumar, joint secretary and mission director (Smart Cities Mission) at India’s ministry of housing and urban affairs

As a long-term goal, Indian cities aim to create dedicated cycling infrastructure of about 10,000 kms in the country, ministry officials said.

Green development has become a key concern of the Indian government, prompting it to take several measures jointly with the local administrations in the country to promote bicycle transport. 

Major Indian cities are setting up infrastructure for bicycles under the India Cycles4Change Challenge and Clean Air Action Plan devised by the federal government to combat air and sound pollution and to tackle traffic congestion.

Last year, the Smart Cities Mission of the federal ministry of housing and urban affairs launched India Cycles4Change Challenge to inspire and support cities to implement cycling-friendly initiatives, and encourage commuters to pedal short distances to ease pressure on overburdened public transport. 

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Around $573 million has been earmarked by the ministry for setting up dedicated cycling tracks, it said in a statement, adding that the fund will be utilized to install streetlights along the tracks and CCTV cameras at junctions to promote safe cycling.

Also, with assistance from the Asian Development Bank, more than six thousand projects have been earmarked under the public-private partnership model to promote safe cycling among Indian cities, the ministry said.

As part of celebrations to mark the 75th year of India’s independence, a three-day campaign — the Freedom 2 Walk & Cycle Campaign — was launched on Oct 1, with over 220 events organized across 100 Indian cities to encourage cycling.

Alarming level of air and sound pollution, spiraling fuel prices, and commuters’ frustration with gridlocked roads are all helping to revive India’s love affair with cycling, environmentalists said.

Eleven Indian cities received adequate funding this year to scale up their cycling initiatives and to encourage them to shift to cycling as a mode of transport, according to the ministry.

Lockdown restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about getting into crowded buses and trains have encouraged some Indians to rediscover cycling as a good mode of transport for short distances, an official involved in the Smart City Mission said.

A survey undertaken by 50 cities ahead of the government’s cycling challenge found speeding vehicles, traffic congestion and pothole-riddled roads deterred residents from riding a bike.

Other common complaints included shortage of dedicated bike lanes, poor street lighting and — for female cyclists — sexual harassment.

Between 2011 and 2015, 25,435 cyclists were killed in accidents on Indian roads. In 2018, 53 cyclists were killed in Delhi alone in road accidents, according to government records.

Despite the difficulties, city residents are turning enthusiastic about cycling for short distance trips in densely populated and polluted Indian cities and towns.

Delhi is among the first few Indian cities to introduce cycling tracks. The local government is adding more such facilities as part of a project to redesign 540 km of city roads, while the Delhi Development Authority is constructing a 16-km dedicated cycling corridor in Dwarka, a south west part of the national capital.  

 “During the pandemic we saw so many people cycle to city roads. The federal government is exploring many ways to promote cycling in New Delhi,” said Ramvir Singh Bidhuri, a veteran legislator from the national capital.  

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Kunal Kumar, joint secretary and mission director (Smart Cities Mission) at India’s ministry of housing and urban affairs, said cities have to make efforts to move people to sustainable modes of transportation.

“Cycling is one of the green mobility which provides each one of an opportunity to be a part of the change. Respect pedestrians and cyclists,” Kumar said.

The pandemic has made people aware of their health and immunity, and at the same time they have become conscious about social distancing. In such a situation, bicycle sales have risen manifold, according to the All India Bicycle Manufacturers Association.

Indian cities have also been struggling with worsening air quality. The absence of a proper ecosystem is preventing cycling from becoming the preferred mobility solution for all sections of society, according to a study undertaken by The Energy and Resources Institute, a nonprofit organization based in New Delhi.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.