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Can India Cycle its way to good health and sustainability?


Cycling has taken center stage at the international and supranational levels as well as in cities due to its potential to address various pressing issues. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recognized bicycling as a crucial measure to mitigate climate change. The European Parliament has acknowledged cycling as a fully fledged mode of transport and aims to double the number of kilometers cycled in Europe by 2030. Additionally, Paris is investing 250 million euros to become a 100% cycling city by 2026.

How does it help?

One of the primary reasons cycling has gained prominence is its positive impact on both transport and health. In India, road traffic has made urban areas almost unliveable, with noise, pollution, and accidents plaguing the streets. The burning of fossil fuels in vehicles not only contributes to air pollution but also accelerates global warming. Cycling offers a solution by reducing physical inactivity and replacing motorized transport, leading to improved health outcomes and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Studies have shown that even a small amount of cycling can have significant health benefits, such as reducing the risk of premature death and non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and diabetes. Furthermore, cycling benefits everyone by reducing air and noise pollution, freeing up parking space, and promoting safer streets. The cities with high levels of cycling in India, such as Bikaner, Chandigarh, Nagpur, and Varanasi, have demonstrated the positive impacts of cycling on both individuals and communities.

The Challenges

However, cycling still faces challenges in India, particularly regarding safety and infrastructure. Research has indicated that the fear of accidents and lack of safe infrastructure are major deterrents to cycling. European cities have succeeded in promoting cycling because they already had safe road conditions and further improved them with cyclist-oriented infrastructure. To encourage cycling in India, it is crucial to prioritize the safety of all road users and address road design features that prioritize cars and discourage cycling.

The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is another significant development in the transport sector, driven by the need to decarbonize and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. While EVs are gaining traction globally, their impact on reducing carbon emissions in India is limited due to the country’s coal-dependent electricity generation. However, e-bikes (electric-assist pedal cycles) offer a promising alternative, as they combine electric power with human pedaling and provide an efficient and active mode of transportation. E-bikes have gained popularity in Europe and North America and could play a vital role in India’s transition to electric vehicles, particularly in hilly terrains and for longer trips.

Despite the potential of cycling and e-bikes, there are challenges to their widespread adoption in India. The affordability of bicycles is a significant barrier, with a large section of the population unable to afford them. Government initiatives that provide bicycles for free, such as schemes for students, highlight the demand for affordable bicycles. The bicycle industry in India also needs to focus on research and development to produce globally competitive, high-quality bicycles.

The way ahead

Promoting cycling in India serves multiple purposes, including mitigating climate change, improving public health, ensuring equitable access to transportation, and promoting social justice. To achieve mass cycling, it is crucial to prioritize safety, invest in cyclist-friendly infrastructure, address affordability issues, and support research and development in the bicycle industry. By reimagining the future of transportation and reducing the dominance of private cars, India can make significant progress in saving the planet and creating a healthier and more sustainable society.

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