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Pedalling for A Change

Pedalling for A Change

Arshel Akhter

Guwahati-based cycling enthusiast and sustainable mobility advocate Arshel Akhter was appointed the Bicycle Mayor in 2018. In this role, he is working to make cycling a habit for the residents

Would you know of a mode of transportation that has zero dependence on fossil fuels – zero emissions and zilch air pollution – adds to health benefits besides being an affordable means of mobility?

After racking your brains for a while, you would have figured out that it is a bicycle. It is a widely accepted fact that the bicycle as a form of mobility has helped improve access to jobs, education, health facilities and even promoted gender empowerment in both urban and rural India.

People lost interest in cycles since the early 1990s when the economy opened up, cities became bigger, people started earning more, and owning cars became fashionable as well as easier. Since the last few years slowly and steadily, again urban India has started realising its benefits, and there seems to be a slight growth in the use of bicycles as a form of mobility in cities and towns.

Arshel close upThe cycling fad has taken the City of Eastern Lights by storm, especially during the lockdown months. Riding high on its growing acceptance among the city residents, Guwahati-based Arshel Akhter, who is a cycling enthusiast and a sustainable mobility advocate, has been working overtime to promote cycling as a mode of transport in the city.

In this freewheeling conversation, we went for a pillion ride on his fascinating cycling journey, various milestones, roadblocks, and how does he see his passion project panning out.

Excerpts:

Tell us a little about your love for cycling.

I am a cycling enthusiast and commute for most of my work on my cycle. I left my corporate life after a stint of a few years in banking and got into share investing for a living since 2016. At the same time, I restarted cycling after a gap of 15 years.

Since 2017, I got into organising various kinds of cycling events, and for my work, in promoting cycling, I got the opportunity to become the Bicycle Mayor of Guwahati in 2018. In 2019, I co-founded the social enterprise Pedal for a Change to work towards a cleaner, greener, healthier and sustainable environment by promoting the use of bicycles in all spheres of life among the people in the North East of India.

In 2020, I co-founded The Green Lane Foundation. It is a research-based organisation, working towards advocating and promoting sustainable urban transportation, road safety and liveable streets.

How did you get into mobilising support for promoting cycling?

The whole process of me getting into promoting cycling was organic. Initially, the idea was to attract more people into cycling. I found out that cycling events encouraged people to connect and keep cycling.

Later on, I found out that a sizeable section of the population, who were interested in cycling, were scared to venture out on the roads due to the fast and furious traffic. I realised that the only way forward for the city would be to have a dedicated cycling infrastructure.

I learnt from various studies and actual case studies of different cities across the world that cities with dedicated cycling infrastructure were safer, cleaner and more accessible for all sections of the society.

Mobility is a fundamental human right as people need to move for their livelihood, education and all sorts of work. Sadly since the last few years, our cities were not developed with the idea to move people but rather to move vehicles.

I learnt by observing the problems of our city – Guwahati, interacting with people from across the world, reading literature, watching videos and attending webinars about new urban mobility concepts and thought that if our city is to survive and prosper, then we will have to rethink how we move.

If you build cities for cars, then you will get more cars, and the same is true for cycles. The question is are we willing to change our habits or are we going to keep following the outdated aspirational ladder of cycles – motorcycles – cars.

We have to think and take up sustainable practices. Our city streets need to be equitably distributed so that these are equitably accessible to all sections of the society.


How is cycling different in the rural and urban context?

People take up cycling for all sorts of activities. The poorer sections of the population are cycling out of compulsion. The economically privileged section cycles mainly for leisure and fitness, many have taken up different types of sports activities and touring.

A very small section of this urban middle class population also cycles for their work. In the rural areas, cycles still have their place but are losing ground as the rural people tend to mimic the urban lifestyle and are also quite aspirational. Easy availability of finance has also made owning a motor vehicle within the reach for many.

The well-known benefits of cycling can be achieved when people start using cycles for their work, and this can be achieved when people are given the option to use their cycles by the government by creating dedicated cycling infrastructure.

There are a lot of obstacles in achieving this goal, and the primary one is the mindset of the people in power.

Arshel Akhter riding a cycle

What are the examples that India could look at to advocate cycling among urban Indians?

It is a proven urban planning concept that if safe cycling infrastructure is provided where people need it the most, then people will come out cycling. That is how famous European cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen became cycling cities, and that is how our cities can be developed.

If you build cities for cars, then you will get more cars, and the same is true for cycles. The question is are we willing to change our habits or are we going to keep following the outdated aspirational ladder of cycles – motorcycles – cars.

We have to think and take up sustainable practices. Our city streets need to be equitably distributed so that these are equitably accessible to all sections of the society.

What are the key responsibilities in this role as a Bicycle Mayor?

The position of Bicycle Mayor is given by an Amsterdam-based social enterprise called BYCS (pronounced bikes). They are working on a global mission called 50by30 whereby they envisage 50% of all working trips in a city are made on cycles by the year 2030. (As per the 2011 census 21% of all working trips were made on cycles in Guwahati. In India, the average is 17%.)

To implement this goal locally, they appoint Bicycle Mayors in cities across the world. Bicycle Mayor is a non-political, honorary position bestowed on an individual who has been working and needs to work towards the promotion of cycles as a mode of transport in cities.

Currently, there are more than 100 Bicycle Mayors  in as many cities across the world. India accounts for a majority of these Bicycle Mayors with more than 40 of them in as many cities. The Bicycle Mayors in various Indian cities have been able to work with the communities and the administration to promote cycling primarily as a mode of transport.

My role as a Bicycle Mayor is to engage with the community by organising various campaigns, activities and events. Apart from that, I also have to engage with the various city administrations to impress upon them the need to create cycling infrastructure. My work is fully aligned with the idea of 50by30.

What is the idea behind having a Bicycle Councillor in Guwahati?

The dream of making Guwahati the most cycling-friendly city in India by 2030 can be achieved when many voices sing in unison and make their voices heard and respected. The city needs some active and passionate set of people to speak up about cycling mainly as a mode of transport and make it safe, accessible and aspirational.

We want to bring interested people under one platform and give their role the name as Bicycle Councillor. The position is conferred and recognised by Netherlands based social enterprise BYCS. Guwahati will be the third city in India after Bengaluru and Mumbai to have Bicycle Councillors.

poster of Bicycle Councillors fo Guwahati
Poster of Bicycle Councillors fo Guwahati

Another idea is to find the next Bicycle Mayor for Guwahati. My tenure is for four years, and it will end by April 2022. The best performing Bicycle Councillor will be nominated for the position of Bicycle Mayor of Guwahati.

Guwahati is divided into 31 wards, and accordingly, there will be 31 ward councillors. It will result in cycling advocates in each ward, and they can work towards promoting cycling in those wards.

(To know more about the program and apply, check out the link below 

https://www.pedalforachange.org/bicycle-councillors-of-guwahati)

How are you planning to take it forward?

The program was launched on 22nd September 2020 which is also celebrated as World Car Free Day. It has been promoted through various media platforms. The last date for application is 15th October 2020, which may be extended, in case, if we feel the need for it.

What is people’s reaction to this movement?

The reaction and response, as expected, has been mixed with some wards having multiple applicants and some wards very few. Because,  presently cycling in Guwahati is not looked at as a sustainable mobility option. That precisely is the narrative that we are trying to change and make cycling as a mode of transport safe, accessible and aspiration in Guwahati.

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However, we are happy that some very passionate people have applied and we are sure these people will take the movement forward. Many of them are not faces from the known active cycling groups in the city but people who look forward to contributing to the well-being of the city they live in.

How cycle-friendly is Guwahati?

To be cycling-friendly, the city streets need to be equitably distributed for different modes of transport. A cycling-friendly city needs to have an ecosystem consisting of well-connected cycling lanes, slow lanes or car-free lanes, cycle parking spaces, cycle repair stations, cycle rentals and cycle sharing for last-mile connectivity, cycle-friendly organisations, institutions, employers, etc.

The most significant and most noticeable of all are dedicated cycling lanes. Since presently all city roads in Guwahati are made solely to move motorised vehicles, and all development work currently going on in the city are centered around towards the same end, the city cannot be said to be cycle-friendly.

People cycle either by choice or compulsion. Those who do it by choice do so at the early morning or late evening hours when motorised vehicular traffic is sparse to avoid being run over.

This section also prefers to go outside the city, during weekends and holidays, to explore the nearby places like Garbhanga forest hills, Chandubi, Pobitora or North Guwahati for their thrills.

People who cannot or do not feel like going outside the city keep themselves confined to city limits and prefer to ride to some areas with less traffic like Khanapara near the veterinary playground, Ujan Bazar to Raj Bhawan road and the city hills like Kamakhya, Gandhi Mandap, GMCH Tower hill, etc.

What are the challenges in Guwahati?

The biggest problems most cyclists face are fast-moving vehicular traffic driven by people with scant regard for other road users. Most of these are commercial vehicles like auto-rickshaws, pick up vans, private city busses, taxis, and many ill-mannered self-entitled people driving expensive cars.

If the cars are not fast then, the drivers are furious who abuse cyclists. Narrow carriageways aggravate this problem as most of the available road space is taken over by all sorts of vehicular parking.

As per government data, 45% of almost all road space in significant streets of Guwahati is used for vehicle parking leaving only 55% for movement of all types of vehicles. The solution, however, is not creating more vehicle parking areas but having a better public transport system, better cycling infrastructure that will encourage people to ditch their private cars.

I would also like to add that cycling, even though not very safe in the present circumstances, do not account for a spike in the number of deaths in road traffic accidents ; the latter occurs mostly among people who ride different kinds of motor vehicles.

As per the Ministry of Highways and Road Traffic, every year 4.5 lakh accidents are reported each year in India. More than 1.5 lakhs are reported killed. Among these, the majority are people riding motorised two-wheelers.

Among these, a majority are young men below 25 years who are killed mainly because of over-speeding and drunken driving. In case of crashes between vehicles, cycles have never been the impacting vehicle but always the impacted ones. Despite these numbers, the sale and aspiration for various motor vehicles have not decreased.

Arshel with the students

What needs to be done to make cycling popular among people?

We intend to make cycling more of a habit and aspirational than a fad. The solution lies in giving people options and facilities where they can use their cycles to travel for their work and places of interest.

Children and young adults can cycle to their schools or colleges, the elderly can go out with their family members for shopping or social visits, the working-aged population can cycle to their work whenever possible.

Creating cycling infrastructure at some corner of the city like cycling parks or avenues where people will come carrying their cycles on their private vehicles for some minutes or km of recreational rides, will not help.

It will lead to the creation of some exclusive parks where the privileged will indulge in fun activities. At the same time, the pollution and congestion levels keep rising exponentially, and the overall health of the people deteriorates.

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