Tag Archives: Delhi

How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

Why is it that cycling seems to be primarily for poor people in developing countries like India, rich people in developed countries with low cycling rates like the US and a middle class phenomenon in developed countries with high cycling rates like Denmark and Holland?

Most cyclists in developing countries are what is known as “captive users”. They are riding not because they want to so much as because they cannot afford other options such as busses, let alone cars.

When I was in India this summer, I learned that many of the people who are cycling are men who are delivering things, like milk or vegetables. What was really shocking was that many of these people earned so little money that they could not even afford to buy their own bicycles, even though they only cost about $50. Instead, they were renting them for about 10 cents/hour from local bicycle shops. To my knowledge, there is no one with a rent-to-own system, but it would be great to set one up if anyone is looking for a social entrepreneurship project.

Milk delivery man in Pune, India

Most anyone with any money in India will immediately start riding the bus or (in the case of delivery men) buy themselves a motor scooter. If they have a bit more money, they will buy a car and if they have even more money, they will buy a fancier car. If they really have some money, they will hire a private driver to get them around. Basically, the more money people have, the more likely they are to drive a motorized vehicle and the less likely they are to consider anything non-motorized (including walking).

There are a few crazy people in India who are wealthy but still ride bicycles. I think I spoke with all four of them while I was there. Personally, I feel that these are the people who will be able to make a push for cycling in India since they have the political and economic capital to make it happen. But this is the topic of another article to come.

I just recently came back from my home country, the USA. There are many exciting developments going on in the past few years and I truly applaud the efforts there. But one thing really struck me from my visit to DC and New York (see links for cycling maps): most of the cycling infrastructure being developed is in neighborhoods inhabited by mainly wealthy, well-educated people like Park Slope and Dupont Circle and not in poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx or Anacostia.

Innovative cycling infrastructure near Dupont Circle in DC

One could be cynical and argue that this because planners are themselves living in these neighborhoods. While there is perhaps a degree of truth in that (and I believe there are some race and class issues in the planning field that need to be discussed more), I think there is more going on.

In speaking with planners, they said that they had tried to make inroads in some of these communities, but that they had received lower adoption rates. For instance, the DC bikeshare scheme Capital Bikes has a station in Anacostia but it is not used as much as in other neighborhoods. They said that this use of the bikeshare system mirrored the cycling demographics in general.


Anacostia waterfront neighborhood in DC cycling infrastructure

I went over there and investigated that area. There was a big fancy new development near the station, but much of the rest of the neighborhood seemed a bit more lower class and black. Most people seemed to be driving around in big SUVs. I met a young white man on the train who said he liked my bike and that he had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get a bike but complained that there was no infrastructure.

My guess is that the neighborhood is gentrifying and that the people who are using the bikeshare there are the young, largely white and educated, professionals moving in- not the poorer, uneducated black population.

In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is a decisively middle class phenomenon. However, what constitutes “middle class” here would be considered quite upper class in the US or India: most people have a college degree (which the government will pay you to get), being able to afford a fur coat is practically considered a human (though not animal) right, everyone has free health care, and there are virtually no homeless people.

Middle class Danish SUV

In Copenhagen you will see ambassadors, politicians and rock stars riding bicycles next to the average Dane. What you won’t see, however, is many muslim immigrants on bikes, despite the world class cycling infrastructure. Is this a skills and training issue, or is it more about integration and culture? Is bike riding just a particularly nationalistic endeavor? Is it still something for rich, white, educated people here too and it’s just that Denmark is a more homogeneous society of rich, white, educated people?

I don’t know the answer to that question though I clearly have my suspicions. What we really need is more research, discussion and action on issues related to race, class, religion, culture and cycling. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating increasing inequities in cites under the auspices of creating a more equitable transportation infrastructure.


poor little bicycle lane

For those who have ever been to New Delhi surely know about the BRT Corridor which holds the cities one and only Bicycle Lane. Yesterday, I had an eventful day riding in the Biking Lane along with Motorbikes who shamelessly and fearlessly ride in bicycle lane. I tried talking to them and stopping them but zero results. I tried talking to the cops they threatened me in return and asked me to produce documents stating right of bicycles on the bicycle lane. How dumb is that? They were ignorant of all the road signs for the same. If cops don’t respect how do we expect the public to respect the same?

Man carrying boxes

Not sure what is in these boxes or how heavy they are but I bet in the west we’d put this load into a pickup truck.

Man bicycling with sheet roofing

How's the turning radius?

Suffice to say, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things transported by bicycle. This is a sheet of tin roofing on a three wheeler cargo bicycle in Delhi. Possibly heading toward a slum to help with monsoon rains?

Indian Cycle Rickshaws

A last mile solution

A rare published fare schedule for rickshaws. Looks regulated by the university. Fares are 5-20 Rupees or about 10-40¢ US.

Cycle rickshaws are an important “last mile solution” in India. The new metro stations in Gurgaon (and likely elsewhere in Delhi) had a line of drivers at the exit. This is likely also due to the fact that the metro corporation perceives its duty over after the stairs are built and there is no connection with other municipal agencies to coordinate connectivity to other modes (eg, feeder busses, sidewalks, etc.).

Typically the drivers are incredibly poor. They often sleep on or near their bicycle and earn a pittance for their difficult, sweaty work under generally hot and highly unsafe conditions. It is certainly not a desirable or fashionable job. Nor is it just for tourists as it is in most western contexts such as Berlin or Amsterdam.

Simon Bishop from the Delhi Multi-Modal Transit Integration System (DIMTS) informed me that women use cycle rickshaws 50% more often as men. This is perhaps because many of their errands tend to be close to home. Maybe they also consider it safer than taking an auto rickshaw or bus.

This photo is from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi, where cycle rickshaws are used to get around campus.

Bicycling into Gurgaon (Delhi satellite city)

Working in advertising and being Brahmin makes it incredibly exceptional for Sudip Battacharya to be a regular bicycle rider. I met up with him through my friend Laura Golbuff, another American based in London writing her PhD on bicycling who was in India this spring.

Sudip let me borrow a bicycle and ride in with him on his 8 km “suburban” Delhi bicycle commute. I had to get up at 6:30 am and take an auto rickshaw to the sparkly new metro to Gurgaon that was only 3 weeks old and still not completely open all the way into downtown Delhi.

Cycle rickshaws picking up at the new metro line which you can see just above them

The sidewalk ended straight off the exit steps from the metro. A row of cycle rickshaws waited for fares. Sudip picked me up in a car though and brought me back to his apartment where he set me up with a nice hybrid bicycle (a Trek or Giant?). He took his folding bicycle and wore a helmet and we both brought a bottle of water since it was already 25-30 degrees C by 8 am.

The occasional obstacle

Traffic was pretty busy and most roads on the route were 3-4 lanes each way. But for much of the ride there was nearly a full lane open on the left side that cars didn’t seem to bother with. India drives on the left, so far left is the “slow” lane. It had sand and other debris like rocks in it as usual for shoulders and cars did occasionally come in to turn or pass but much of it was free for most of the time.

Traffic craziness

There was the odd cow here and there too, since cows in Hinduism are holy and roam the streets. However, they mostly stayed off the side of the road. The saying goes, likely true, that cows are treated better than pedestrians and bicyclists and have much lower accident and fatality rates.

Sudip, watch out for the cow!

I was given the option of the faster more dangerous route or the longer, nicer route. Valuing my life, I opted for the nicer, longer option. Given the results, I’m pretty happy I made the choice I did.

This option required making a right turn across 4 lanes of traffic. If you want to cross a few lanes of traffic to make a turn, it’s best (eg, only possible) at a stoplight. However, you can tap the trunks of cars and ask them to move forward to let you through if they are too tightly bunched. If you did that in the US, they would probably yell at you for touching their car but here they very politely got out of your way. Amazing!

At one intersection, a woman in a nearby car (clearly also fairly well off herself) mouthed something like “what [the heck] are you doing?” toward Sudip from behind the window of her air conditioned car. He mouthed back “going to work!” to which she clucked back, “very nice!” with a giant smile, positive head bobble and fingers in a circular A-OK sign.

Sudip riding on what he claims is just a "big road" and not a highway. And this was the "nice" way!

Just after this, we dodged a few cows before heading onto what was apparently “just a big [8 lane, divided] road” and not a highway according to Sudip. Sure looked like a highway to me. But we stuck to our lane and it actually felt pretty ok, aside from the fact that traffic was moving quite fast.

The last couple of km we were on a small “2 lane” road. Lanes are somewhat interpretive however since there are multiple sizes and types of vehicles plying the roads ranging from cars, to 3 wheel auto and bicycle rickshaws, motorscooters, trucks, bicyclists and pedestrians all vying for the same road space. This negotiation is a barter in which basically the smallest vehicle should and largely does always yield to anything larger. Depending on the size of vehicle, there could be 3 or more vehicles sharing the same “2 lane” street.

"2 lane" road

When the space is tight, you often get pushed around more. However, being white and/or high status bicycle riders it was clear that drivers were giving us a wider berth than the majority of lower caste delivery bicyclists. Yet I still felt it was more dangerous on the smaller slower road than I felt riding on the 8 lane “highway”.

When we got into the office, one of Sudip’s co-workers noticed us with our bicycles and commented that it was great that we had ridden in on bicycles and expressed a desire to follow suit. It has been my experience that there is a latent aspiration among middle and upper class professionals in India to ride bicycles, at least recreationally but that the infrastructure and safety angle is a major barrier.

Upon entering the office, we both popped into the bathroom for a makeshift towel shower- wetting a towel and cleaning up the sweaty parts, changing the shirt and switching from sandals to shoes and socks.

Generally, I would rank the ride sketchy but doable if you are a bit brave. Let’s give it a 3 out of 10. Certainly better than bicycling in downtown Delhi, which is sheer madness and very spread out. With some better infrastructure in strategically placed locations, I think you could encourage a few working professionals to start riding. This would elevate the status of bicycling and hopefully begin to create a virtuous cycle.