By Rhea Kumar:
When was the last time you were late to school or office because of a traffic jam? When was the last time you complained about the noise and chaos on your city roads? And when was the last time you heard about an incident of road rage?
Despite an efficient public transportation system, most metropolitan cities suffer from an overdose of cars and private vehicles. Most systems of public transportation such as the Metro or the bus system run on pre-designated routes and do not provide door-to-door transportation services. Besides, the relatively high standards of living in such places drive up the demand and usage of private vehicles. The result: congested roads, noise pollution, rising stress levels and, of course, an unprecedented increase in air pollution.
But now, various organizations and movements are suggesting biking as an alternative form of transportation: one that is not only eco-friendly and safe, but also a great deal of fun! The BikeNYC movement in New York City is the most high profile and successful effort in this direction. Established in 1973, this broad based movement connects about 10,000 biking enthusiasts across the city in an effort to promote bikes as a viable alternative to cars and other vehicles that run on fuel. BikeNYC has helped develop a citywide network of lanes that separate bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers. It has also launched a bike-sharing program wherein bikers can pick up a bike from one of its kiosks and drop it off at any other kiosk once they have finished their journey. Besides this, BikeNYC supports and organizes various bike tours happening across New York State.
In another initiative, school students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania started a campaign to promote separate bike paths in crowded cities. The trauma and indignity of being squeezed off the road onto pavements by huge cars and vans motivated these young bikers to take up this cause. Since 2009, these students have been working with the students of Franklin and Marshall College on forming a labyrinth of trails across Lancaster to promote hiking and biking. With the help of various governmental and non-governmental organizations, organized an event called Bikeapalooza, aimed at educating the citizens of Lancaster on the benefits of biking.
Unknown to most of us, there are as many as 375 bike-sharing programs around the world, made of an estimated fleet of 236,000 bicycles. The central concept of these systems is to provide free or affordable access to bicycles for short-distance trips in an urban area as an alternative to motorized public transport or private vehicles. Bicycle sharing systems have also been cited as a way to solve the ‘last mile’ problem and connect users to public transit networks. Such movements allow bike lovers to pursue their passion, without fear of being run over by the next car they encounter. Truly, what can be more liberating than biking smoothly along a busy street on a bright sunny day with the wind flying through your hair, while watching drivers and passengers gnash their teeth as they crawl through a huge traffic pile-up? And, in the process, if you are able to burn off some calories as well, what more could you ask for?
Apart from promoting personal freedom, there is also a significant environmental cause that these movements espouse in their own subtle way. And that is the all-pervasive issue of vehicular pollution. Scientific studies reveal that at low speeds, vehicles use fuel less efficiently, and therefore contribute more to air pollution. So not only do traffic jams cause headaches for those caught in them, they also probably cause respiratory problems for everyone else in the vicinity.
Closer home, can we borrow and adapt some ideas from these movements? India has been ranked the third most polluted country after China and the United States of America. In New Delhi, vehicles move at an average speed of 10 or 20 kilometres per hour owing to massive traffic jams. About 50% of Bangalore’s children suffer from asthma due to continuous exposure to polluted air. Is this the legacy we want to leave for our children? Do we want them to suffer in a world choked by the noxious effects of our activities? Against this backdrop, an effort to promote biking in Indian cities certainly seems like a practical solution to the problem. The Bike sharing model will definitely be a huge draw in cities such as Pune and Bangalore that are emerging as education hubs and IT hubs. It will provide easy and quick mobility to students and young professionals, who may not own vehicles of their own.
So the next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, use the time to think. Think of how you can reduce the stress caused by traffic jams. Think of how you can make things better for yourself and everybody else around you. Think of how your daily mundane journey to the office can be converted into an adventure. And perhaps, you will be encouraged to buy the next cycle you see!