Monday, July 13, 2015

Will the next-gen kids ever experience the fun of cycling on city streets?

It has become rare to find films depicting its main protagonist as an everyday cyclist. In the 1940s-50s films, cyclists were depicted as working class heroes who would cycle to work. Here, the cycle would become a symbol of hard work and freedom in an industrialising society. The films of the 1960s and 1970s showed cycling as both a recreational and a group activity, where the actor on a cycle used to go for a ‘picnic’ with his or her friends, singing and dancing. This changed drastically in the 1980s and 1990s when cycling started disappearing from the movies. Since then, cycles have only appeared in nostalgic or atypical sequences, but not as a part of life or as an everyday object. Indian cities have witnessed consistent decline of cycling from everyday life, popular culture and urban landscapes.
Films not only represent collective social experiences but also construct aspirations and imaginations of lifestyles. These observations prompt a gloomy question – is cycling a part of everyday urban life anymore? Is there space in our cities for cycling without getting hurt? Will the children today ever know the fun of aimless wandering - cycling and running around in the streets? Any possibilities of cycling on our motorised traffic-packed streets make a lot of people nervous today. I am not sure how genuine this fear of getting out on a cycle, is but a lot of people complain of safety issues, lack of infrastructure and weather conditions. In spite of all odds, there are lakhs of people who cycle to their destinations in our cities. Many school children still cycle to school for some years. Both of these groups have their own vulnerabilities of being victims in road crashes.
On the other hand, many countries around the world have seen a revival of cycling – London is investing about 1 billion pounds in cycling, that is after spending 500 millions in a public bike sharing scheme known as ‘Boris Bikes’. About 200 European cities, 50 South American cities and about 25 Asian cities have definitive plans for cycling infrastructure and promotion, including the public bike sharing schemes. Weather conditions are not very pleasant in London and in many other European cities, yet the numbers of cyclists keep going up and they continue to build infrastructure. Why in the world are these cities investing in cycling in the 21st century? Because they are worried about climate change and they are fighting the relentless air pollution. Besides, cycling-friendly cities are people-friendly, beautiful cities - Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Antwerp, Buenos Aires and many more. 
We have lakhs of cyclists in our cities but we still need to promote the culture of cycling and fight the social stigma of it being a ‘poor man’s vehicle’. A cycle is perfect for manageable distances and it is surely a healthier and environment-friendly mode of transport unlike any other mode. Cycles takes up less space while moving and parking. You can begin cycling just one day in a week. One message concluded it all for me – ‘cycle burns fat and saves money, car burns money and makes you fat!’ There are lots of local heroes who are putting in great efforts for reviving cycling in cities of Gujarat - more about them next week!

 (13th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

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