Chennai has made strides in cycling in the recent years. The promising start has seen many new riders take to cycling during the pandemic. Recognising the need to make the city safe for cyclists, dedicated cycling lanes have been piloted in parts of the city. While these steps augur well for the future of cycling in the city, there is a long way to go in making cycling mainstream.
Cycle lane in ECR
A proposal for creating more happy streets – closure of streets for activities by citizens – came from the cycling community and has been taken up with success in Besant Nagar. I’m not sure if this seeded the thought but I received a call from the police asking about the feasibility of creating a cycling lane in ECR.
Commissioner Shankar Jiwal took up the idea himself and he has been keen on encouraging cycling in Chennai. The police will also be scaling up the activity in the city by using bicycle patrols. Our meeting covered ground on how to get more people to cycle within the department and outside.
When the idea to create the cycle lane came about, the cycling community was consulted on what would be the ideal time to undertake the exercise to block traffic. We proposed that this be done between 5 am and 8 am.
Overnight the lane was opened for use on December 25th and 26th. Once this was piloted, it was decided that this exercise would be carried out every weekend. With the Sunday lockdown coming into effect, at present the lane is operational only on Saturdays. We are trying our best to sustain the momentum for this initiative. The sustainability of the effort remains to be seen. We are bringing attention to cycling as an activity. The effort made by authorities to this end is commendable.
Long term focus on cycling necessary
From a long term perspective we need traffic calming measures, we need ways to make vehicles slower at the neighbourhood level, we need to scale up these interventions from one part of the city to across the whole city. It feels special to see cars being stopped for cyclists. This is creating a positive impression among motorists with regard to the priority and importance placed on cycling. We need more interventions and awareness measures on arterial roads such as Mount Road and Poonamallee High Road.
We have seen efforts such as ‘Happy Streets’ in other cities. I see that as the way to scale up by bringing a diverse set of people into the cycling fold. When we do it once a week and invite children, the elderly and couples to take to cycling this will make a positive impact. Blocking off roads on all days without any buy-in from the larger community will only create a rift between them and the cyclists.
Motorists vs cyclists is not a serious issue as we have found most of the motorists to be cooperative. There have been some instances where cyclists have been cut off or cornered. But such conflict is not widespread. Anecdotally, I have found more people understanding hand signals and manoeuvres by cyclists of late.
Need for awareness about cycling
The key to making these campaigns sustainable is to improve awareness. Just as there are road safety campaigns to spread awareness regarding the importance of helmets, we need campaigns encouraging non-motorised transport. We can take advantage of the lockdown to get the message to people, as more Chennaiites are looking for ways to stay fit and healthy. This could be the time we can encourage cycling and taking public transport.
We need behavioural change and a change in thought process for people to take to cycling. During the first lockdown I saw that many of my peers did not consider cycling or walking as an option. I started using cycles to pick up groceries in my locality. Slowly, I have begun to see more people even in the neighbourhood who are using cycles. Cycling and use of public transport needs to become attractive for the larger public. Solving first and last mile connectivity is an important piece of this puzzle.
If you see the smart bike programme in the city, it appears that bikes have been placed across the city without a lot of thought about the needs of the end user. The usage has stagnated because dedicated campaigns have not been run to use it for commuting. The angle that was used for smart bikes was more about fitness and less on functionality.
The latest effort in getting cycling to the masses involves the “Share the Road, Chennai” campaign. It is an initiative that helps users – through an app- tag roads based on the suitability for walking or cycling. Along with this, users of the app can also raise their concerns and suggestions. The app is being tested by a closed group at present. The points raised by the public will be incorporated in the long-term vision for mobility in the city. The app would be accessible to all and users can even find locations of nearby puncture shops or roads with less traffic.
Better marketing for cycling
Everywhere you see a cycling project fail, you will find there is not enough awareness and promotions. In Chandigarh when cycle lanes were created, the patronage was poor. There is a real dearth of success stories because their momentum could not be sustained beyond the initial few weeks. The lack of marketing is an issue in most of the cases. We have to approach these projects like how we would a commercial project or even car use.
If you are not going to sell the idea properly there will be no takers. Cars are always promoted with talk of safety features, comfort and convenience. Similar messaging must be crafted for cycling and speak about the benefits of cycling and how cycling in a dedicated cycle lane is a safe proposition. Even now many common citizens are not aware of the cycle lane idea.
When you think of smart bikes you associate it with smartphones, use of an app and digital wallets. We are already excluding a large section of the people from being able to access the facility. We have to carefully consider and define why we want to promote cycling in the city and how.
Roadblocks in the way of a cycling city
Some of the roadblocks that need to be addressed before this are issues of safety of the cyclists and the cycles themselves. The many parking lots in the city do not have dedicated spaces for cyclists to park. Street parking has also proved to be unsafe for many occasions. This stems from the thought that cycles do not need safe parking spaces. We can park 10 cycles in the space taken up by a large car. All that is required is a pole to latch (docking station) the locks.
During the second lockdown in the UK, efforts were made to encourage cycling. The measures resulted in more people taking to cycling and this actually helped boost the local economy. Encouraging cycling will ensure more people can easily get around the neighbourhood. There are social and economic benefits to it from the ripple effect of cycling.
We need to approach cycling in Chennai from both at the community level and through political will. We are happy to see cycling even feature as one among ten focus areas as long as it is part of the conversation. There is only a certain amount of space on our roads but we are keen on populating it with more vehicles. Many of these vehicles are single-commuter vehicles, especially with COVID-19.
The politicians, civic body and the people must work together to make cycling a common activity. Only when the absolute number of cycle users in the city increases can more demands for better cycling infrastructure gain attention.
A bill has been introduced in Bengaluru for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. Such efforts must be replicated in Chennai.