Cycling ban runs contrary to pollution mitigation efforts in India

One of the protests against the cycling ban by SwitchON Foundation in Kolkata. PHOTO: SWITCHON FOUNDATION

NEW DELHI - The eastern Indian city of Kolkata, once a capital under British rule, has a rich tradition of cycling and was home to the country's first bicycle club set up by the British in 1897.

Now a campaign is gathering steam to remove a ban on cycling on 64 roads at a time when the city authorities are coming up with a cycling masterplan, which includes creating 120km of cycling tracks as part of a clean air action plan.

The plan, which identifies strategies to reduce pollution from every source, is part of the National Clean Air Programme, a federal initiative.

Authors Ruskin Bond and Amitav Ghosh, film-maker Aparna Sen and singer Usha Uthup are among dozens of prominent citizens who have now backed the campaign #BringBackCycles to fight the ban.

The campaign has been initiated by non-governmental organisation SwitchON Foundation, which in an open letter to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee urged the removal of the ban, arguing that bicycles are zero-emission transportation that enables livelihoods and reduces congestion as they take up approximately five times less space than cars on the roads.

"Every city is moving in the direction of non-motorised transport for congestion and pollution. The other angle is of livelihood. Lots of people cycle to work. This cycle ban is unusual in a country where the poor widely use cycles to get around," said Mr Vinay Jaju, managing director and co-founder of SwitchON Foundation.

"I feel the system is so car-centric. Kolkata has been designed in a way to encourage cycling or walking. It is sad that cities like London and Paris are trying hard to include more cycling and we have a ban," he added.

Cities across India are coming up with ways to mitigate pollution by creating infrastructure for bicycles.

The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority has drafted the cycle masterplan that seeks to create 120km of cycle tracks. But it has yet to start implementation amid contradictions like the cycle ban.

In Kolkata, the traffic ban dates back to 2008, when the traffic police, trying to rein in unruly traffic, prohibited cycling on 38 roads. By 2013, the ban had expanded to include 162 roads, resulting in protests. It was then reduced to 64 roads.

On some roads, cycling is totally banned, but on other roads, it is prohibited between 7am and 11pm.

Over the years, the Kolkata police have explained that the ban was put in place to better manage chaotic traffic.

The Kolkata traffic police told the Kolkata High Court in 2014 that the cycle ban was there "because cycles and other forms of non-motorised transport have been running indiscriminately through the roads".

But pollution in Kolkata, like other large congested metros, remains a big problem.

Last winter, pollution touched the very severe category. According to a 2019 study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, cars contribute 20 per cent to 25 per cent of air pollution.

In an open letter, SwitchON Foundation urged the removal of the ban arguing bicycles are zero-emission transportation. PHOTO: SWITCHON FOUNDATION

A recent study, titled Evaluation Of The Impact Of Ambient Air Pollution On Respiratory Health Of Traffic Police In Kolkata, found that traffic constables were among a higher risk group and likely to develop respiratory dysfunctions due to pollution.

Ms Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment, said cities needed to understand the importance of making cycling a priority.

"Things are moving (in Kolkata) with the bicycle masterplan. Especially in the context of Kolkata, cities really need to understand the opportunity they have. Not just that more people are cycling. In terms of compactness, Kolkata has a huge advantage (to reduce pollution) and it is very conducive to promote non-motorised transport," she said.

"Cycling is a very important mobility option. A lot of leveraging is possible today with petrol prices (going up). If you increase the glamour quotient, not just for the poor, it should be seen as a mode of choice for the rich and middle class."

The coronavirus pandemic has also seen more people taking to cycling.

Cinematographer Satanjib Gupta uses his bicycle as his main mode of transportation now.

"It's the most convenient vehicle for me. The street length is very short - 5km to 6km. Whenever I choose a destination, it is less than 10km. After Covid-19, I never use any other kind of vehicle. I have avoided public transport," said Mr Gupta, who is a member of BYCS, an Amsterdam-based social enterprise promoting cycling.

"After Covid-19, cycles are getting more attention. Many people cycle to the city centre to earn money. It's the poor who suffer the most. And if you see a 'no cycling' board everywhere in the city, you feel discouraged."

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